Tariff tumult boosts view that Fed may cut U.S. rates

MERIDIAN, Miss./SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to jack up tariffs on goods from China fueled market bets Friday that the Federal Reserve will cut interest rates later this year, with one Fed policymaker suggesting he could be receptive if economic data deteriorates.

FILE PHOTO: Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Raphael Bostic participates in a panel discussion at the American Economic Association/Allied Social Science Association (ASSA) 2019 meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry/File Photo

Since January, the Fed has signaled it expects to leave rates unchanged while it takes stock of competing economic crosswinds, including lower-than-ideal inflation and faster-than-expected GDP and jobs growth.

In contrast Trump and other top administration officials have repeatedly urged the Fed to cut interest rates to boost economic growth, which is expected to slow this quarter from a 3.2 percent annual pace last quarter as the stimulative effect of last year’s tax cuts fade.

But asked Friday if the new U.S. tariffs could lead to a rate cut, Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic did not rule it out.

“Depending on the severity of the response, it could,” Bostic told reporters. “It really depends. It depends on what businesses decide to do and then it depends on how long the tariffs are in place.”

Fed projections published in March suggest most policymakers expect rates to be on hold through the end of the year. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell earlier this month predicted that recent low inflation readings were driven by transitory factors, and reiterated his view that there is no pressing need now to either raise or lower rates.

Inflation readings published Friday suggested price pressures remain muted.


But with the newly imposed 25% tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods - part of Trump’s effort to ratchet up pressure on China for an elusive trade deal - traders of short-term interest-rate futures are back to betting the Fed will cut interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point by December to counter a slowdown.

The Fed currently targets short-term rates in a range of 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent, which by its estimate is neither stimulating nor braking growth.

Importers are expected to pass on higher duties to consumers, leading to steeper prices on a range of goods within a few months time. Normally a rise in prices would reduce the chances of a Fed rate cut, but in this case a rate increase could become more likely.

Analysts say price increases from tariffs are likely to be transitory, and the Fed will likely ignore them. Bart Hobijn, an Arizona State University economics professor, recently co-authored a study with San Francisco Fed researchers that estimated “sizable” but one-time inflationary effects from higher tariffs.

The bigger impact, however, could be a hit to consumer spending, and a drag on economic growth, particularly if trade tensions continue to escalate and the Trump administration follows through on a threat to impose higher tariffs on the remaining $325 billion of Chinese imports.

“Tariffs complicate things dramatically,” said TD Securities analyst Michael Hanson. The Fed, he predicted, is unlikely to cut rates proactively but would wait to act until there is concrete evidence of a slowdown, either in global trade or, more directly, in spending or hiring at home.

If that happens, he said, the Fed may need to respond with a “full-on” rate-cutting cycle, he said, adding that this is not currently his forecast.

Not all analysts are as worried. ASU’s Hobijn, for instance, said he believes that consumers faced with more expensive Chinese goods will simply buy other, cheaper goods. “The magnitude of that substitution is hard to predict, but it will partly offset the inflationary and contractionary effects of the tariffs,” he said.

New York Fed chief John Williams, speaking Friday, also seemed to downplay the tariffs. “Trade tensions are still an issue,” he said, but the U.S. economy should still grow about 2.25% in 2019, faster than his estimate of a long-run sustainable pace.

Atlanta Fed’s Bostic seemed less sanguine, telling reporters Friday that his first order of business Monday morning will be to review estimates of how tariffs might affect U.S. GDP growth.

With reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Steve Orlofsky