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No Rulebook for a Trade War – Fed’s Powell Speaks, Gold Price Holds Steady

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell made some measured statements on the current state of the economy on Friday morning, with financial markets experiencing steep volatility beforehand. Powell reassured the public that the Fed is dedicated to extending the current period of economic expansion despite headwinds such as the US/China trade war.

Key Takeaways

  • Powell restated the Fed outlook that it would “act as appropriate”, taking care to stick to familiar language less likely to trigger a panic in the markets.
  • The focus of his talk was around protecting the economy against headwinds such as the global economic slowdown and the ongoing trade war with China.
  • Powell stated that the Fed is close to achieving full employment and price stability, two of its primary goals.

Powell spoke at the Fed’s Jackson Hole symposium, with little to say on future interest rate policy. He stuck to the statement that the Fed “will act as appropriate to sustain the expansion”, a phrase he has used in the past – Powell received criticism last year for using unexpected language on several occasions which may have triggered market volatility, and appears to be exercising more caution in 2019.

He commented on the Fed’s targets of full employment and price stability, stating that both goals are in sight, and adding “Our challenge now is to do what monetary policy can do to sustain the expansion so that the benefits of the strong jobs market extend to more of those still left behind, and so that inflation is centred firmly around 2 percent.”

Uncharted Territory

While he had positive remarks to make on inflation, employment, and economic expansion, Powell also acknowledged that the trade war was uncharted territory for central bank policymakers, adding that there are “no recent precedents to guide any policy response to the current situation.”

“While monetary policy is a powerful tool that works to support consumer spending, business investment, and public confidence, it cannot provide a settled rulebook for international trade,” he said. “We can, however, try to look through what may be passing events, focus on how trade developments are affecting the outlook, and adjust policy to promote our objectives.”

Powell added that the US economy has “continued to perform well overall” despite ongoing challenges and obstacles.

“The global growth outlook has been deteriorating since the middle of last year. Trade policy uncertainty seems to be playing a role in the global slowdown and in weak manufacturing and capital spending in the United States,” he said.

Rate Cut Policy and Recessionary Pressure

The FOMC approved a 25 basis point rate cut in late July, the first of its kind in 11 years. In contrast to the multiple rate hikes seen in 2018, the cuts were introduced to hedge against recessionary pressures such as the trade war and tame inflation as well as weak global economic activity. Markets expect another rate cut to be approved in September and another before the close of the year.

Powell stated that the central bank would “remain vigilant” against financial excesses that could threaten the economy, although painted a positive picture so far. “We have not seen unsustainable borrowing, financial booms, or other excesses of the sort that occurred at times during the Great Moderation, and I continue to judge overall financial stability risks to be moderate.”

“Because the most important effects of monetary policy are felt with uncertain lags of a year or more, the Committee must attempt to look through what may be passing developments and focus on things that seem likely to affect the outlook over time or that pose a material risk of doing so,” he added. “But fitting trade policy uncertainty into this framework is a new challenge. Setting trade policy is the business of Congress and the Administration, not that of the Fed.”

Powell notably made no reference to the yield curve inversion which recently took place. The two-year Treasury note overtook the 10-year, a solid recessionary indicator. However, Powell did not use the word recession or directly allude to it in his speech on Friday.

Market Reaction

Gold prices have held daily highs following Powell’s speech, perhaps influenced by weaker-than-expected home sales data released at the same time. It’s also likely that gold prices climbed in anticipation of the speech due to the uncertainty hovering above the marketplace regarding Fed policy.

Spot gold last traded at $1,513.34/oz, up 0.61% on the day with a high of $1,513.34/oz and a low of $1,493.84/oz.