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On '60 Minutes,' Fed chief Powell aims for middle ground

The Federal Reserve chairman sought to be reassuring, dismissing the notion that the president could fire him over rates.
Image: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell delivers a report to the Senate Banking Committee in Washington on Feb. 26, 2019.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell delivers a report to the Senate Banking Committee in Washington on Feb. 26, 2019.Joshua Roberts / Getty Images file

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell struck a reassuring tone in his “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday, characterizing the economic outlook as favorable and dismissing the notion that President Donald Trump could fire him for raising rates — although he left some worried that the central bank might not be ready for an economic downturn.

Not that the Fed plans to hike interest rates any time soon, according to Powell. “Our policy rate, we think, is in an appropriate place, so what we’ve said is that we would be patient,” he said.

For a market facing a global slowdown and ongoing trade tensions, reaffirming the Fed’s willingness to take a wait-and-see stance on rates was a relief.

"I don’t think there was anything really new in terms of policy. That’s a good thing,” said Dan North, chief economist at Euler Hermes North America.

Powell’s mere presence on the CBS Sunday night program was significant, given that previous Federal Reserve chairs have been less willing to engage with the media.

“It’s just one more example of how Powell is trying to reach beyond the markets and speak directly to people, which is part of this strategy, I think,” said David Wessel, director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy and senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

Unlike every other Fed head in nearly four decades, Powell is not an economist, although he served as a Fed governor prior to taking the top spot last year. “He’s very comfortable talking to ordinary people and members of Congress in a way that neither Ben Bernanke nor Janet Yellen was,” Wessel said.

North suggested that in the interview Powell might have had a certain viewer in particular in mind. “Perhaps it was a matter of speaking to the people and to Donald Trump,” he said.

Indicating just how hard it is to thread the needle of monetary policy, some economists think the Fed has acted too slowly in raising interest rates, while others worry that rates have been raised too far already.

“My concern for the economy is that it is in fact slowing, and I’m concerned that the Federal Reserve may have already raised rates too far. They came very, very close to inverting the yield curve,” North said.

When the cost of short-term borrowing rises above the cost of long-term Treasury bonds, it has generally signaled that a recession is on the horizon — a pattern that has market observers watching those rates with trepidation, since they are hovering within a fraction of a percentage point of each other.

“If it doesn’t go negative, it’s entirely possible that the Fed pulled off the elusive ‘soft landing’… but I’m concerned about the interest rate movements,” North said. “A large part of the impetus to raise rates was to have some ammunition for the next recession,” he said, and it’s unclear Powell would have that — or the support of the president who appointed him.

“It’s really important that Congress back up the Fed,” Wessel said.

“I think the much bigger issue here is if the Fed has got interest rates to where they are now — barely 2.5 percent — and we have a recession, there’s a limit to how much the Fed can lower interest rates,” Wessel said. In this case, monetary policymakers would need to work closely with Congress and the executive branch to develop a multi-pronged solution — but working in concert with other governing bodies isn’t something the White House has shown much of a taste for.

“Powell seems confident that the domestic economy is doing well,” said Michael Pearce, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics. “He placed more emphasis on the downturn overseas, particularly in the Eurozone and China, and he’s still striking an upbeat note on the U.S. economy.”

Pearce expressed concern that this framing, while canny from a political standpoint, could reflect the viewpoint of a Fed Chair wearing rose-colored glasses. “I think the biggest risk is that there is this broader slowdown in the economy underway that the Fed has underestimated,” he said.

“The Fed does seem to be downplaying what is very clear evidence to us that interest rate hikes have already had an impact,” Pearce said, pointing to slowdowns in business equipment investment and durable goods purchases by households. “I think that’s a sign that the interest rates are starting to weigh more heavily on economic growth.”