Despite positive tone from Fed, Wall Street still 'frozen' ahead of G-20

Despite the fact that Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell struck a generally positive tone about the economy, Wall Street remains in a holding pattern ahead of crucial trade negotiations between the U.S. and China.
Image: Peter Tuchman
Peter Tuchman, center, works with fellow traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on June 19, 2019.Richard Drew / AP

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By Martha C. White

The Federal Reserve’s highly anticipated two-day meeting ended as most market observers expected, with no cut to the benchmark Federal Funds rate, but with language that indicated the Federal Open Market Committee was more open to cutting interest rates.

“It confirms market expectations that they’re no longer worried about a tight labor market increasing inflationary pressure,” said Terry Sandven, chief equity strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management. “A neutral stance seems to be appropriate,” he said.

In characterizing its stance, the Fed statement dropped the word “patient,” as many had predicted. “Patience is no longer a virtue of the Fed,” said Charlie Ripley, senior investment strategist for Allianz Investment Management. “It appears that market participants have nudged the Fed closer to the idea of ‘insurance’ rate cuts,” he said.

Citing “cross-currents” like trade tensions and slowing global growth, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said in his afternoon press conference that many Committee members see a stronger case for future rate cuts. The “dot plot” indicating the projections of Fed officials bore this out, but Powell said that although the dots “provide useful information for people,” he stressed that they shouldn’t be read as a forecast.

“We now have eight dots that are saying there could be a cut by the end of the year,” said LendingTree chief economist Tendayi Kapfidze, adding that the spread of the dots was a telling indication that officials were divided about how to read conflicting economic signals and how to respond from a policymaking standpoint. “That movement in those eight dots suggests that there’s more of a debate around whether there should be a rate cut or not,” he said.

The Fed statement also described the pace of economic expansion as “moderate,” versus the use of the word “solid” in May. “It’s a subtle difference, but it is a difference,” said Dan North, chief economist at Euler Hermes North America.

Although the outlook was generally positive, the Fed said that uncertainties have increased. It said it would step in and “act as appropriate to sustain the expansion,” using stronger language than in the past.

Powell said that uncertainties have “clearly risen," pointing to weaker business sentiment and corporate investment, although he noted “solid” consumer spending and a still-healthy rate of job creation. But he added that the committee wanted to respond to sustained trends and not react just to data points or changes in sentiment, which can be volatile.

Chair Powell also noted that inflation was growing at a slower rate than expected, and that weak global growth might continue to hold inflation down both in the U.S. and worldwide, suggesting that a 2 percent target inflation rate might be a new normal.

“They’re recognizing that growth is slowing, potentially from the headwinds we’re seeing in trade. I think they’re seeing some of that. They also evidenced that business investment has softened,” Ripley said.

This could be a consequence of President Donald Trump's tendency to wield trade sanctions as a weapon in economic, geopolitical and diplomatic conflicts, he said. “Business managers are unable to make decisions in this environment.”

The stock market had a muted response to the Fed announcement, with some analysts saying Wall Street could be suffering from the same paralysis as corporate America.

“Investors are frozen like a deer in the headlights," said Mitchell Goldberg, president of Client First Strategy. “There are so many cross-currents here, between the desires of President Trump, the trade tariffs, the G-20 meeting coming up — no one wants to do anything."