Seven weeks into coronavirus lockdowns, Fed has a new, darker message

By Heather Timmons

(Reuters) – One Thursday morning seven weeks ago, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell made a rare appearance on NBC’s “Today Show” to offer a reassuring message to Americans dealing with economic fallout from measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

There is “nothing fundamentally wrong with our economy,” Powell told viewers while pointing out the U.S. central bank’s outsized ability to take on lending risk and provide a financial “bridge” over the temporary economic weakness the country was experiencing.

Speaking after the Fed cut interest rates to near zero and rolled out a plan to backstop credit for small- and mid-sized companies, Powell emphasized the first order of business was to get the virus under control.

“The sooner we get through this period and get the virus under control, the sooner the recovery can come,” said Powell, echoing remarks made the day before by Anthony Fauci, a top U.S. health official helping to coordinate the federal government’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

At the time, Powell said he expected economic activity would resume in the second half of the year, and maybe even enjoy a “good rebound.”

But on Wednesday, he offered a much more sober outlook.

In an interview webcast by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Powell warned  of an “extended period” of weak economic growth, tied to uncertainty about how well the virus could be controlled in the United States. “There is a sense, growing sense I think, that the recovery may come more slowly than we would like,” he said.

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was similarly somber when he told lawmakers earlier this week that the country was by no means in “total control” of the outbreak.

“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control and, in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery,” Fauci said.

The pandemic has killed more than 83,000 people in the United States so far , and many epidemiological models now point to a death toll that will surpass 100,000 in a matter of weeks.

Overall new cases of the virus continue to climb as well, as states end lockdowns and reopen local economies without the widespread, uniform testing and contact tracing policies that helped stamp out initial outbreaks in South Korea and Germany.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Powell’s remarks on Wednesday mirrored warnings this week from a clutch of regional Fed presidents who outlined the country’s uncertain future.

U.S. central bank officials, and especially the Fed chief, historically choose their words carefully, to avoid alarming or exciting investors or causing swings in financial markets, making their universally dour outlook more remarkable.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said the situation could lead to a new Great Depression, with millions of so-far temporary job losses becoming permanent, and businesses failing “on a grand scale.”

“We have to get better at this and get more risk-based with our health policy,” Bullard said.

The U.S. economy can return to growth in the second half of the year, Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester said on Tuesday, with more testing and contact tracing. If that happens, she said, “as some of the stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, the economy will begin to grow again in the second half of this year and unemployment will begin to move down.”

However, a more pessimistic scenario, in which a surge in infections requires businesses to shut down again or the crisis leads to more bankruptcies or instability in the banking sector, is “almost as likely,” she said.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider, Ann Saphir, Jonnelle Marte, and Heather Timmons; Writing by Heather Timmons; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)

Fed cuts rates and NYC, LA close restaurants to fight coronavirus

By Lindsay Dunsmuir and Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With panic buying on Main Street and fear-driven sell-offs on Wall Street, the U.S. Federal Reserve cut interest rates to near zero on Sunday in another emergency move to help shore up the U.S. economy amid the rapidly escalating coronavirus pandemic.

The mayors of New York City and Los Angeles ordered restaurants, bars and cafes closed, with takeout and delivery the only options for food sales. Movie theaters, small theater houses and concert venues were also ordered closed as the U.S. death toll from the outbreak hit 65.

“The virus can spread rapidly through the close interactions New Yorkers have in restaurants, bars and places where we sit close together,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. “We have to break that cycle.”

For the second time since the financial crisis of 2008, the Fed cut rates at an emergency meeting, aiming for a target range of 0% to 0.25% to help put a floor under a rapidly disintegrating global economy.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who had openly pressed the Fed for further action, called the move “terrific” and “very good news.”

Store shelves have been stripped bare of essentials, schools closed and millions of jobs in jeopardy as businesses temporarily shut their doors.

“We’re learning from watching other countries,” Trump said. “It’s a very contagious virus … but it’s something that we have tremendous control of.”

Trump has faced criticism at home and abroad for sometimes downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus and overstating his administration’s ability to handle it.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, said the United States was entering a new phase of coronavirus testing but tempered the president’s optimism.

“The worst is yet ahead for us,” Fauci said, a warning he has issued frequently in the past week. “It is how we respond to that challenge that is going to what the ultimate end point is going to be.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said testing for coronavirus was expanding with more than 2,000 labs across the country ready to process tests and 10 states operating drive-through testing.

The United States has lagged behind other industrialized nations in its ability to test for the coronavirus. In early March, the Trump administration said close to 1 million coronavirus tests would soon be available and anyone who needed a test would get one, a promise it failed to keep.

With limited testing available, U.S. officials have recorded nearly 3,000 cases and 65 deaths, up from 58 on Saturday. Globally more than 162,000 are infected and over 6,000 have died.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control on Sunday recommended that events with gatherings of 50 or more people over the next eight weeks be postponed or canceled.

DON’T HOARD

The White House appealed to Americans not to hoard as the coronavirus spreads, reassuring them that grocery supply chains were strong.

Trump held a phone call on Sunday with 30 executives from grocery stores including Amazon.com Inc’s <AMZN.O> Whole Foods, Target Corp <TGT.N>, Costco Wholesale Corp <COST.O> and Walmart Inc <WMT.N>, the White House said.

“Have a nice dinner, relax because there’s plenty, but you don’t have to … you don’t have to buy the quantities,” Trump said. “We’re doing really, really well. A lot of good things are going to happen.”

Trump tested negative for coronavirus, his doctors said on Saturday, as the president extended a travel ban to Britain and Ireland to try to slow the pandemic.

Trump’s spokesman, Judd Deere, said temperature checks will be conducted on everyone who enters the White House grounds, beginning Monday morning.

Travelers returning to the United States and being screened for the coronavirus were met by long lines and massive delays at some major airports, prompting federal officials to deploy more staff and Trump to appeal for patience.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, squaring off in a Democratic debate, blasted Trump’s handling of the coronavirus and touted their own plans to deal with it.

In their first one-on-one debate, the two Democratic contenders to face Trump in the November election said the Republican president had contributed to worries about the pandemic by minimizing the threat before declaring a national emergency on Friday.

CLOSURES EXPAND

The U.S. containment measures have so far been mild compared to the nationwide lockdowns imposed in Italy, France and Spain.

“I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,” Fauci said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Even though Americans are not barred from going to the movies, ticket sales in North America fell to their lowest level in more than two decades this weekend, according to measurement firm Comscore.

Democratic New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that schools in New York City, Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk counties would close from Monday, and he called on Trump to mobilize the Army Corps of Engineers to create more hospital beds.

Cuomo had been criticized for not closing schools as other states have done, given that New York has a large cluster of coronavirus cases.

A clinical trial to evaluate a vaccine designed to protect against coronavirus will begin on Monday, the Associated Press reported, citing an unnamed U.S. government official.

It would take a year to 18 months to fully validate any potential vaccine, the AP added, citing public health officials.

(For an interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus, open https://tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7 in an external browser.)

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Lindsay Dunsmuir, Andrea Shalal, Nandita Bose, Matt Spetalnick, Humeyra Pamuk, John Whitesides, Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by Lisa Shumaker and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Diane Craft, Lincoln Feast and Gerry Doyle.)

Fed slashes rates in emergency move to combat coronavirus risks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Reserve cut interest rates on Tuesday in an emergency move designed to shield the world’s largest economy from the impact of the coronavirus.

It was the Fed’s first emergency rate cut since 2008 at the height of the financial crisis, underscoring how grave the central bank views the fast-evolving situation.

In a statement, the central bank said it was cutting rates by a half percentage point to a target range of 1.00% to 1.25%.

“The fundamentals of the U.S. economy remain strong. However, the coronavirus poses evolving risks to economic activity. In light of these risks and in support of achieving its maximum employment and price stability goals, the Federal Open Market Committee decided today to lower the target range for the federal funds rate,” the Fed said a statement.

The decision was unanimous among policymakers.

In a news conference, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said the coronavirus would weigh on the U.S. economy for some time. He said he believed the central bank’s action would provide “a meaningful boost to the economy.”

“We saw a risk to the outlook for the economy and chose to act,” Powell said. “I do know that the U.S. economy is strong.. I fully expect that we will return to solid growth and a solid labor market as well.”

The Fed’s decision to cut interest rates before its next scheduled policy meeting on March 17-18 reflects the urgency with which the Fed feels it needs to act in order to prevent the possibility of a global recession.

U.S. stocks initially surged on the move, which had increasingly been expected as it became evident the coronavirus would not be contained to its epicenter in China. With 90,000 cases worldwide in 77 countries and territories, the virus has upended global supply chains, triggered cancellations of sports events, business meetings and other large gatherings, and torpedoed global stock prices on fears it could cause a recession.

Equities reversed many of their initial gains within minutes of the unscheduled announcement by the Federal Open Market Committee, the central bank’s policy arm. U.S. Treasury debt prices surged, sending bond yields lower. Interest-rate futures traders immediately began pricing in even more rate cuts in coming months.

“Normally, markets would welcome a rate cut, and they were hoping for it,” said Peter Kenny, Founder of Kenny’s Commentary LLC. “Now that we’ve got it, the question is what’s next.”

Powell had earlier on Tuesday taken part in a conference call with the top finance authorities from the world’s seven largest economies, which concluded with a statement that they would take all appropriate measures to support the economy. At his news conference, Powell said the Fed was in active discussions with other central banks.

“I’m a little surprised. I didn’t expect that at 10 o’clock today, I thought you’d see something coordinated among central banks,” said Justin Lederer, interest rate strategist at Cantor Fitzgerald in New York.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin applauded the Fed’s decision, saying it would help the U.S. economy. In a tweet after the Fed move, President Donald Trump called on the central bank to cut even more. “More easing and more cutting,” he said.

(Reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir and Ann Saphir; Editing by Dan Burns and Andrea Ricci)

Fed policymakers cautiously optimistic on U.S. economy despite new risks, minutes show

By Lindsay Dunsmuir

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Federal Reserve policymakers were cautiously optimistic about their ability to hold interest rates steady this year, minutes of the central bank’s last policy meeting showed, even as they acknowledged new risks caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

The readout on Wednesday of the policy discussion, at which policymakers unanimously voted to keep interest rates unchanged in a target range of between 1.50% and 1.75%, also showed Fed officials were skeptical about any big rethink of the central bank’s inflation target.

“Participants generally saw the distribution of risks to the outlook for economic activity as somewhat more favorable than at the previous meeting,” the Fed said in the minutes of the Jan. 28-29 meeting. It went on to say the current stance of monetary policy was likely to remain appropriate “for a time.”

Coming into this year the Fed had made clear that, after three interest rate cuts in 2019, it plans to hold interest rates steady, barring a significant change in the U.S. economic outlook.

Policymakers have pointed to U.S. consumer spending levels, dissipating U.S-China trade tensions and loose financial conditions as supporting their view, but how long such an upbeat assessment can last has already been tested by escalating concern about the global economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak that started in China.

On Monday Apple Inc <AAPL.O> issued a revenue warning due to the disruption the epidemic is causing to its supply chain. China, the world’s second-largest economy, is still struggling to get its manufacturing sector back up and running after imposing severe travel restrictions to contain the flu-like virus.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell said last week it was too early to tell if the knock-on economic impact on the United States would be severe or sustained enough to cause the Fed to change its current path.

Since the outbreak began investors have brought forward their bets of when the Fed will cut interest rates again, to around June of this year. In the minutes, policymakers said the threat “warranted close watching.”

Despite that, Fed officials offered a fairly upbeat assessment of the economy, expecting consumer spending to “likely remain on a firm footing,” job gains to expand at a healthy pace, continued moderate economic expansion and inflation returning to its 2% goal. The Fed is forecasting the economy growing 2.0% this year.

That is at odds with some economic data released since the meeting. The Commerce Department reported last week a slowdown in consumer spending in January. Business investment has also experienced a deepening downturn and the U.S. manufacturing sector remains weak.

As part of a discussion on rethinking the Fed’s inflation goal during the central bank’s review of its main policy tools, there were vocal doubts about adopting an inflation range.

“Most participants expressed concern that introducing a symmetric inflation range … could be misperceived as a signal that the Committee was comfortable with continued misses below its symmetric inflation objective,” the Fed said.

BALANCE SHEET

Elsewhere in the minutes, Fed policymakers discussed how to handle its growing balance sheet. The Fed has been buying $60 billion monthly of U.S. Treasury bills since October to increase the level of reserves in the banking system in response to a liquidity crunch.

Powell has said the Fed would aim to begin scaling back that amount sometime in the April-June period, when the level of reserves in the banking system would likely be deemed adequate.

After that, “regular open market operations would be required over time in order to accommodate trend growth in the Federal Reserve’s liabilities and maintain an ample supply of reserves,” Fed policymakers noted in the minutes.

The Fed also expects to continue offering support in the market for repurchase agreements, or repo, at least through April but in the minutes staff floated a plan that included phasing out the term repo operations after April. Those policymakers who commented on the plan were comfortable with the idea, according to the minutes.

Several policymakers asked for more discussion “before long” on the possibility of creating a standing repo facility, which would allow banks to borrow cash as needed at a fixed rate.

(Reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir in Washington; Additional reporting by Jonnelle Marte in New York; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Matthew Lewis)

Trump, Powell met Monday at White House to discuss economy

By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell met at the White House on Monday morning, their second meeting since Powell started the job in February 2017 and soon after became the target of frequent criticism from the president who had appointed him.

The Fed announced the meeting in a morning press release, noting they met “to discuss the economy, growth, employment and inflation.”

“Everything was discussed including interest rates, negative interest, low inflation, easing, Dollar strength & its effect on manufacturing, trade with China, E.U. & others, etc.,” Trump tweeted soon after, calling the session “good & cordial.”

The Fed’s wording closely followed its description of Powell’s first meeting with Trump, this past February, over a dinner that also included Vice Chair Richard Clarida.

Trump’s tweet marked a change in tone. The president in recent months derided Powell and colleagues as “pathetic” and “boneheads” for not cutting interest rates, and in August labeled Powell personally as an enemy of the United States on a par with China leader Xi Jinping.

The Fed in its statement was careful to note what wasn’t discussed: Powell’s expectations for future monetary policy. Trump has for more than a year charged the Fed with undermining his economic policies by, in his view, keeping interest rates too high, and depriving the United States of what Trump feels are the benefits of the negative rates of interest set by the European and Japanese central banks.

The U.S. central bank has cut rates three times this year – in part to offset what it views as damage done by the Trump administration’s trade war with China. But after their last meeting, in October, policymakers signaled they would lower rates no further unless the economy takes a serious turn for the worse.

Less than 24 hours after that decision, Trump laid into Powell again, saying people are “VERY disappointed” in him and the Fed. And only last week, Trump lobbed another dig in a tweet that noted inflation was low: “(do you hear that Powell?)”

CONSISTENT

Powell “did not discuss his expectations for monetary policy, except to stress that the path of policy will depend entirely on incoming information that bears on the outlook for the economy,” the Fed said in its statement.

Powell appeared before congressional committees twice last week, and the Fed said his comments to Trump were “consistent” with his statements to lawmakers.

“Chair Powell said that he and his colleagues on the Federal Open Market Committee will set monetary policy, as required by law, to support maximum employment and stable prices and will make those decisions based solely on careful, objective and non-political analysis.”

The meeting included Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Powell met with Trump in February, and in each of the three following months the two had a brief phone conversation. That compares with the three times his predecessor, Janet Yellen, met President Barack Obama at the White House; Yellen also met with Trump during her final year as Fed chair.

Powell’s has made much more extensive and deliberate efforts to court members of the House and Senate, even as Trump expressed regret for appointing Powell and reportedly explored whether he could remove him.

Fed chairs are appointed to four-year terms by the president, but once confirmed by the Senate are intended to be insulated from White House political pressure over how to manage monetary policy. They can only be removed “for cause,” not over a disagreement over policy.

Meetings between Fed chairs and presidents are not unprecedented but they are infrequent, as opposed to the nearly weekly sessions that central bankers have with the head of the Treasury.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. Fed cuts interest rates, and signals it is on hold

U.S. Fed cuts interest rates, and signals it is on hold
By Howard Schneider and Lindsay Dunsmuir

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve on Wednesday cut interest rates for the third time this year to ensure the U.S. economy weathers a global trade war without slipping into a recession, but signaled it will leave borrowing costs where they are unless things take a material turn for the worse.

“We believe that monetary policy is in a good place,” Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in a news conference after the U.S. central bank announced its decision to cut its key overnight lending rate by a quarter of a percentage point to a target range of between 1.50% and 1.75%.

“We see the current stance of monetary policy as likely to remain appropriate as long as incoming information about the economy remains broadly consistent with our outlook,” he said.

Risks relating to global trade, as well as to the prospect that Britain would crash out of the European Union, have moved in a “positive direction” since the Fed’s last meeting, Powell said, adding that the U.S. economy has remained resilient.

With the stimulative effects of the Fed’s rate cuts so far this year still working their way through the economy, only “a material reassessment of our outlook” could drive the central bank to cut rates further from here, Powell said. Currently the Fed expects moderate economic growth, a continued strong labor market, and inflation to move back up to its 2% annual target.

In the statement accompanying its decision to cut rates, the Fed dropped a previous reference that it “will act as appropriate” to sustain the economic expansion – language that was considered a sign for future rate cuts.

Instead, the Fed said it will “monitor the implications of incoming information for the economic outlook as it assesses the appropriate path” of its target interest rate, a less decisive phrase.

Kansas City Fed President Esther George and Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren dissented from the decision. They have opposed all three Fed rate cuts this year as unnecessary.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, who had dissented in September because he supported a bigger rate cut then, voted with the majority on Wednesday, an indication that pressure within the Fed for further rate cuts may have lessened.

The rate cut was widely anticipated by financial markets, but expectations for additional cuts after October have diminished significantly in recent weeks.

While yields on longer-dated bonds showed little reaction, those on shorter-dated maturities that are more closely influenced by Fed policy expectations, moved higher. The yield on the 2-year note <US2YT=RR> rose to the highest since Oct. 1 at about 1.67%.

U.S. stocks, down modestly before the Fed’s statement, pared some of their losses and were little changed on the day. The benchmark S&P 500 Index <.SPX>, which had hit a record high earlier in the week, was down fractionally.

“It’s pretty much what was expected,” said Jim Powers, director of investment research at Delegate Advisors.

“The more important outcome is they removed the phrase ‘act as appropriate.’ It looks like the market is taking that to mean that there will be a pause in the declining rate path they were on beforehand. That’s what was expected, and that’s generally a good thing,” Powers said.

UNUSUAL JUNCTURE

The central bank and U.S. economy are at an unusual juncture.

Unemployment is near a 50-year low, inflation is moderate, and data earlier on Wednesday showed gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 1.9% in the third quarter, a slowdown from the first half of the year but not as sharp a decline as many economists expected and some Fed officials feared.

But parts of the economy, particularly manufacturing, have stuttered in recent months as the global economy slowed. Businesses have pared investment in response to the U.S.-China trade war that both raised tariffs on many goods, and also made the world a riskier place to make long-term commitments.

While that has not had an obvious impact yet on U.S. hiring or consumer spending, Fed officials felt a round of “insurance” rate cuts was appropriate to guard against a worse outcome. The Fed cut rates in July and again in September, and by doing so hoped to encourage businesses and consumers with more affordable borrowing costs.

The approach was successful in the 1990s when risks developed during another prolonged period of economic growth.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Lindsay Dunsmuir; Additional reporting by Ross Kerber in New York; Editing by Paul Simao)

Fed cuts rates on 7-3 vote, gives mixed signals on next move

By Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Reserve cut interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point for the second time this year on Wednesday in a widely expected move meant to sustain a decade-long economic expansion, but gave mixed signals about what may happen next.

The central bank also widened the gap between the interest it pays banks on excess reserves and the top of its policy rate range, a step taken to smooth out problems in money markets that prompted a market intervention by the New York Fed this week.

In lowering the benchmark overnight lending rate to a range of 1.75% to 2.00% on a 7-3 vote, the Fed’s policy-setting committee nodded to ongoing global risks and “weakened” business investment and exports.

Though the U.S. economy continues growing at a “moderate” rate and the labor market “remains strong,” the Fed said in its policy statement that it was cutting rates “in light of the implications of global developments for the economic outlook as well as muted inflation pressures.”

With continued growth and strong hiring “the most likely outcomes,” the Fed nevertheless cited “uncertainties” about the outlook and pledged to “act as appropriate” to sustain the expansion.

U.S. stocks, lower ahead of the statement, dropped further, and Treasury yields ticked up from their lows of the day. The S&P 500 was last down 0.64% and the 10-year Treasury note yield inched up to 1.77%.

The dollar gained ground against the euro and yen.

“Another rate cut from the Fed to try to shield the U.S. economy from global headwinds,” said Joe Manimbo, senior market analyst at Western Union Business Solutions in Washington. “Today’s move was more of a hawkish easing in that the Fed’s median forecasts for rates suggested no more cuts this year, while some officials dissented.”

New projections showed policymakers at the median expected rates to stay within the new range through 2020. However, in a sign of ongoing divisions within the Fed, seven of 17 policymakers projected one more quarter-point rate cut in 2019.

Five others, in contrast, see rates as needing to rise by the end of the year.

The divisions were reflected in dissents that came from both hawks and doves.

St. Louis President James Bullard wanted a half-point cut while Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren and Kansas City Fed President Esther George did not want a rate cut at all.

There was little change in policymakers’ projections for the economy, with growth seen at a slightly higher 2.2% this year and the unemployment rate to be 3.7% through 2020. Inflation is projected to be 1.5% for the year, below the Fed’s 2% target, before rising to 1.9% next year.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell is scheduled to hold a press conference at 2:30 p.m. EDT (1830 GMT) to elaborate on the policy decision.

The rate cut fell short of the more aggressive reduction in borrowing costs that President Donald Trump had demanded from Fed officials, whom he has insulted as “boneheads” who have put the economic recovery in jeopardy.

The Fed also cut rates in July, the first such move since 2008.

Fed officials have said the rate cuts are justified largely because of risks raised by Trump’s trade war with China, a global economic slowdown and other overseas developments.

Their aim, they say, is to balance the potential need for lower rates against the risk that cheaper money may cause households and businesses to borrow too much, as happened in the run-up to the financial crisis more than a decade ago.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir; Additional reporting by Richard Leong in New York; Editing by Paul Simao and Dan Burns)

Explainer: The Fed has a repo problem. What’s that?

By Richard Leong

(Reuters) – As if the U.S. Federal Reserve didn’t already have enough on its plate heading into its meeting on interest rates this week, chaos deep inside the plumbing of the U.S. financial system has thrown policymakers an unexpected curveball.

Cash available to banks for their short-term funding needs all but dried up on Monday and Tuesday, and interest rates in U.S. money markets shot up to as high as 10% for some overnight loans, more than four times the Fed’s rate.

That forced the Fed to make an emergency injection of more than $50 billion, its first since the financial crisis more than a decade ago, to prevent borrowing costs from spiraling even higher. It will conduct another one on Wednesday.

The exact cause of the squeeze is a matter of some debate, but most market participants agree that two coincidental events on Monday were at least partly to blame. First, corporations had to withdraw funds from money market accounts to pay for quarterly tax bills, and then on the same day the banks and investors who bought the $78 billion of U.S. Treasury notes and bonds sold by Uncle Sam last week had to settle up.

On top of that, the reserves that banks park with the Fed and are often made available to other banks on an overnight basis are at their lowest since 2011 thanks to the central bank’s culling of its vast portfolio of bonds over the past few years.

Added together, these factors are testing the limits of the $2.2 trillion repurchase agreement – or repo – market, a gray but essential component of the U.S. financial system.

Whatever the cause, the episode has added fuel to the argument that the Fed needs to take steps to avoid more disruptions in the repo market down the road.

WHY IS THE REPO MARKET IMPORTANT?

The repo market underpins much of the U.S. financial system, helping to ensure banks have the liquidity to meet their daily operational needs and maintain sufficient reserves.

In a repo trade, Wall Street firms and banks offer U.S. Treasuries and other high-quality securities as collateral to raise cash, often overnight, to finance their trading and lending activities. The next day, borrowers repay their loans plus what is typically a nominal rate of interest and get their bonds back. In other words, they repurchase, or repo, the bonds.

The system typically hums along with the interest rate charged on repo deals hovering close to the Fed’s benchmark overnight rate, currently set in a range of 2.00% to 2.25%. That rate is expected to be cut by a quarter percentage point on Wednesday.

But sometimes, investors get fearful of lending, as seen during the global credit crisis, or at other times there are just not enough reserves or cash in the system to lend out, as appeared to be the case this week. And that can cause a squeeze on the market and send borrowing costs zooming higher.

But when investors get fearful of lending, as seen during the global credit crisis, or when there are just not enough reserves or cash in the system to lend out, it sends the repo rate soaring above the Fed Funds rate.

Trading in stocks and bonds can become difficult. It can also pinch lending to businesses and consumers and, if the disruption is prolonged, it can become a drag on a U.S. economy that relies heavily on the flow of credit.

WHAT HAS CAUSED THE DROP IN BANK RESERVES?

Coming out of the financial crisis, after the Fed cut interest rates to near zero and bought more than $3.5 trillion of bonds, banks built up massive reserves held at the Fed.

But that level of bank reserves, which peaked at nearly $2.8 trillion, began falling when the Fed started raising interest rates in late 2015. They fell even faster when the Fed started to cut the size of its bond portfolio about two years later.

The Fed stopped raising interest rates last year and cut them in July and is expected to do so again on Wednesday. It has also now ceased allowing to bonds to roll off its balance sheet.

The question vexing policymakers now is whether those actions are enough to stop the downward drift in reserves, which are a main source of liquidity in funding markets like repo.

Bank reserves at the Fed last stood at $1.47 trillion, the lowest level since 2011 and nearly 50% below their peak from five years ago.

WHAT CAN THE FED DO TO CALM THE REPO MARKET?

1. RUN SPOT REPO OPERATIONS

Through the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Fed can conduct occasional spot repo operations at times of funding stress, allowing banks and dealers to swap their Treasuries and other high-quality securities for cash at a minimal interest rate. It did this on Tuesday and will do it again on Wednesday.

2. LOWER THE INTEREST IT PAYS ON EXCESS RESERVES

By making it less profitable for banks, especially foreign ones, to leave their reserves at the Fed, it may encourage banks to lend to each other in money markets.

3. CREATE A STANDING REPO FACILITY

Such a permanent financing program will allow eligible participants to exchange their bonds for cash at a set interest rate.

Fed and its staff have considered such a facility, but they have not determined who qualifies, what would be the level of interest paid and the timing for a possible launch.

4. RAMP UP BUYING OF TREASURIES

The Fed can replenish the level of bank reserves by slightly increasing its holdings of U.S. government debt. This comes with the risk that it may be perceived as a resurrection of quantitative easing rather than a technical adjustment.

(Reporting by Richard Leong; Editing by Dan Burns and Richard Borsuk)

Predicting the next U.S. recession, investors apprehensive

FILE PHOTO: Ships and shipping containers are pictured at the port of Long Beach in Long Beach, California, U.S., January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Saqib Iqbal Ahmed

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A protracted trade war between China and the United States, the world’s largest economies, and a deteriorating global growth outlook has left investors apprehensive about the end to the longest expansion in American history.

The recent rise in U.S.-China trade war tensions has brought forward the next U.S. recession, according to a majority of economists polled by Reuters who now expect the Federal Reserve to cut rates again in September and once more next year.

Trade tensions have pulled corporate confidence and global growth to multi-year lows and U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement of more tariffs have raised downside risks significantly, Morgan Stanley analysts said in a recent note.

Morgan Stanley forecast that if the U.S. lifts tariffs on all imports from China to 25 percent for 4-6 months and China takes countermeasures, the U.S. would be in recession in three quarters.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc <GS.N> said on Sunday that fears of the U.S.-China trade war leading to a recession are increasing and that Goldman no longer expects a trade deal between the world’s two largest economies before the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Global markets remain on edge with trade-related headlines spurring big moves in either direction. On Tuesday, U.S. stocks jumped sharply higher and safe-havens like the Japanese yen and Gold retreated after the U.S. Trade Representative said additional tariffs on some Chinese goods, including cell phones and laptops, will be delayed to Dec. 15.

Besides watching developments on the trade front economists and investors are watching for signs they hope can alert them to a coming recession.

1. THE YIELD CURVE

The U.S. yield curve plots Treasury securities with maturities ranging from 4 weeks to 30 years. When the spread between the yield on the 3-month Treasury bill and that of the 10-year Treasury note slips below zero, as it did earlier this year, it points to investors accepting a lower yield for locking money up for a longer period of time.

As recession signals go, this so-called inversion in the yield curve has a solid track record as a predictor of recessions. But it can take as long as two years for a recession to follow a yield curve inversion.

The closely-followed yield spread between U.S. 2-year and 10-year notes has also narrowed – marking the smallest difference since at 2007 – according to Refinitiv data.

GRAPHIC – Yield curve as a predictor of recessions🙂

2. UNEMPLOYMENT

The unemployment rate and initial jobless claims ticked higher just ahead or in the early days of the last two recessions before rising sharply. Currently the U.S. unemployment rate is near a 50-year low.

“Although job gains have slowed this year, they continue to signal an above-trend economy,” economists at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research said in a recent note.

Claims will be watched over the coming weeks for signs that deteriorating trade relations between the United States and China, which have dimmed the economy’s outlook and roiled financial markets, were spilling over to the labor market.

(GRAPHIC – Unemployment rate: )

3. GDP OUTPUT GAP

The output gap is the difference between actual and potential economic output and is used to gauge the health of the economy.

A positive output gap, like the one now, indicates that the economy is operating above its potential. Typically the economy operates furthest below its potential at the end of recessions and peaks above its potential towards the end of expansions.

However, the output gap can linger in positive territory for years before a recession hits.

(GRAPHIC – The GDP output gap peaks before recessions🙂

4. CONSUMER CONFIDENCE

Consumer demand is a critical driver of the U.S. economy and historically consumer confidence wanes during downturns. Currently consumer confidence is near cyclical highs.

(GRAPHIC – Consumer confidence is at cyclical highs: )

5. STOCK MARKETS

Falling equity markets can signal a recession is looming or has already started to take hold. Markets turned down before the 2001 recession and tumbled at the start of the 2008 recession.

The recent pullback in U.S. stocks has done its share to raise concerns about whether the economy is heading into a recession. On a 12-month rolling basis, the market has turned down ahead of the last two recessions. The 12-month rolling average percent move is now below the recent highs of January 2018 but still above higher than the lows hit in December.

(GRAPHIC – The S&P 500 has fallen during recessions🙂

6. BOOM-BUST BAROMETER

The Boom-Bust Barometer devised by Ed Yardeni at Yardeni Research measures spot prices of industrials inputs like copper, steel and lead scrap, and divides that by initial unemployment claims. The measure fell before or during the last two recessions and has retreated from a peak hit in April.

(GRAPHIC – The Boom-Bust Barometer🙂

7. HOUSING MARKET

Housing starts and building permits have fallen ahead of some recent recessions. U.S. homebuilding fell for a second straight month in June and permits dropped to a two-year low, suggesting the housing market continued to struggle despite lower mortgage rates.

(GRAPHIC – Housing starts have fallen before prior recessions: )

8. MANUFACTURING

Given the manufacturing sector’s diminished role in the U.S. economy, the clout of the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) manufacturing index as a predictor of U.S. GDP growth has slipped in recent years. However, it is still worth watching, especially if it shows a tendency to drop well below the 50 level for an extended period of time.

ISM said its index of national factory activity slipped to 51.2 last month, the lowest reading since August 2016, as U.S. manufacturing activity slowed to a near three-year low in July and hiring at factories shifted into lower gear, suggesting a further loss of momentum in economic growth early in the third quarter.

“The slowdown in manufacturing activity likely reflects, in part, the tariffs that went into effect over the course of last year,” economists at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research said in a note on Friday.

(GRAPHIC – ISM Manufacturing Index: )

9. EARNINGS

S&P 500 earnings growth dipped ahead of the last recession. Earnings estimates for S&P 500 companies have been coming down but companies are still expected to post growth for most quarters this year.

(GRAPHIC – Earnings fell during the last recession: )

10. HIGH-YIELD SPREADS

The gap between high-yield and U.S. government bond yields rose ahead of the 2007-2009 recession and then widened dramatically.

Credit spreads typically widen when perceived risk of default rises. Spreads have fallen from their January highs.

(GRAPHIC – Junk bond yields jumped in the 2008 recession🙂

11. FREIGHT SHIPMENTS

The Cass Freight Index, a barometer of the health of the shipping industry produced by data company Cass Information Systems Inc, logged a 5.3% year-over-year decline in June. That marked the index’s seventh straight month with a negative reading on a year-over-year basis.

“Whether it is a result of contagion or trade disputes, there is growing evidence from freight flows that the economy is beginning to contract,” Broughton Capital analyst Donald Broughton wrote in the June Cass Freight Index report.

(GRAPHIC – Cass Freight Index – shipments🙂

12. MISERY INDEX

The so-called Misery Index adds together the unemployment rate and the inflation rate. It typically rises during recessions and sometimes prior to downturns. It has slipped lower in 2019 and does not look very miserable.

(GRAPHIC – The Misery Index: )

(Reporting by Saqib Iqbal Ahmed; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. hiring slows; shorter factory workweek a red flag

FILE PHOTO: An assembly line worker works on the production line at Renegade RV manufacturing plant in Bristol, Indiana, U.S., April 16, 2019. REUTERS/Tim Aeppel

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job growth slowed in July and manufacturers slashed hours for workers, which together with an escalation in trade tensions between the United States and China could give the Federal Reserve ammunition to cut interest rates again next month.

The Labor Department’s closely watched monthly employment report on Friday came a day after President Donald Trump announced an additional 10% tariff on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports starting Sept. 1, a move that led financial markets to fully price in a rate cut in September.

The U.S. central bank on Wednesday cut its short-term interest rate for the first time since 2008. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell described the widely anticipated 25-basis-point monetary policy easing as insurance against downside risks to the 10-year old economic expansion, the longest in history, from trade tensions and slowing global growth.

“Fed officials don’t exactly have mud in their eyes after cutting interest rates this week as job growth is slowing with the rest of the world,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York. “We see nothing in today’s report to stop a second rate cut next month.”

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 164,000 jobs last month, the government said. The economy created 41,000 fewer jobs in May and June than previously reported. July’s job gains were in line with economists’ expectations.

Underscoring the moderation in hiring, the average workweek fell to its lowest level in nearly two years in July as manufacturers cut hours for workers. Hours were also reduced in other industries, contributing to the workweek’s drop to 34.3 hours, the fewest since September 2017, from 34.4 hours in June.

“The decline in hours worked suggests that employers may be pulling back more than headline hiring would suggest,” said Andrew Schneider, a U.S. economist at BNP Paribas in New York.

A measure of hours worked, which is a proxy for gross domestic product, fell 0.2% in July, pointing to weak output.

The U.S.-China trade war is taking a toll on manufacturing, with production declining for two straight quarters. Business investment has also been hit, contracting in the second quarter for the first time in more than three years and helping to hold back the economy to a 2.1% annualized growth rate. The economy grew at a 3.1% pace in the first quarter.

The White House’s “America First” policies are also restricting trade flows. A separate report from the Commerce Department on Friday showed sharp declines in both imports and exports in June, leading a 0.3% dip in the trade deficit to $55.2 billion during the month.

Job gains over the last three months averaged 140,000 per month, the fewest in nearly two years, compared to 223,000 in 2018. Economists say it is unclear whether the loss of momentum in hiring was due to ebbing demand for labor or a shortage of qualified workers.

Still, the pace of job gains remains well above the roughly 100,000 needed per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 3.7% in July as 370,000 people entered the labor force.

Despite the lowest jobless rate in nearly 50 years, wage gains remain moderate, contributing to a tame inflation environment, which could be supportive of a rate cut at the Fed’s Sept. 17-18 policy meeting.

Inflation has undershot the central bank’s 2% target this year, rising 1.6% on a year-on-year basis in June after a 1.5% gain in May. Average hourly earnings rose 8 cents, or 0.3%, in July, after the same increase in June. That lifted the annual increase in wages to 3.2% in July from 3.1% in June.

Financial markets have fully priced in a rate cut in September and the chances for further easing in December have increased, according to CME Group’s FedWatch tool.

The dollar <.DXY> was trading lower against a basket of currencies, while U.S. Treasury prices rose. Stocks on Wall Street tumbled to a one-month low.

ECONOMY COOLING

Even with the step-down in employment growth and moderate wage gains, the labor market is supporting the economy as the stimulus from last year’s $1.5 trillion tax cut package fades. The economy is expected to grow around 2.5% this year.

There was some encouraging news on the jobs market. The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, rose to 63.0% in July from 62.9% in June.

A broader measure of unemployment, which includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment, fell two-tenths of a percentage point to 7.0% last month, the lowest level since December 2000.

The moderation in hiring was led by construction, which increased payrolls by 4,000 jobs after creating 18,000 positions in June.

Manufacturing employment rose by 16,000 jobs after advancing by 12,000 in June. The strong gains are at odds with weak factory activity. A survey on Thursday showed manufacturing employment hit its lowest level since November 2016 in July.

The sector, which accounts for more than 12% of the U.S. economy, is also battling an inventory bulge and design problems at aerospace giant Boeing Co <BA.N>. The manufacturing workweek dropped 0.3 hour to 40.4 hours, the lowest since November 2011. Factory overtime fell by 0.2 hour to 3.2 hours.

“A prolonged drop in hours worked signals that businesses may reduce hiring, with layoffs and cutbacks in private spending to potentially follow, said Beth Ann Bovino, U.S. chief economist at S&P Global Ratings in New York.

Government employment increased by 16,000 jobs in July, boosted by local government hiring, adding to June’s gain of 14,000. Professional and business services employment rose by 38,000 jobs last month.

There were also increases in healthcare, leisure and hospitality, financial activities and wholesale trade employment. But retail payrolls dropped by 3,600 jobs, declining for a sixth straight month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)