Powell: Economy Looks Resilient Despite Risk of China Virus

Though, the coronavirus “could lead to disruptions in China that spill over to the rest of the global economy," he said.

In this Jan. 29, 2020 file photo Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell speaks during a news conference following the Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington.
In this Jan. 29, 2020 file photo Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell speaks during a news conference following the Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington.
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Tuesday the U.S. economy appears durable with steady growth and unemployment near a half-century low but faces some risk from the broadening viral outbreak that began in China.

Giving the Fed’s semiannual monetary report to Congress, Powell said that the Fed is content with where interest rates are, suggesting that no further rate cuts are being contemplated unless economic conditions were to change significantly.

President Donald Trump let it be known in a tweet during that appearance Tuesday that he was not happy with Powell’s message on interest rates.

”Fed rate is too high. Dollar tough on exports,” Trump said in a tweet, saying the Dow Jones industrial average had fallen into negative territory on Powell’s comments. The Dow, however, rebounded and was in positive territory at mid-day as Powell spoke.

Asked about the tweet during the hearing, Powell gave his standard answer about presidential pressure. “My colleagues and I are completely focused on using our tools to support ... our goals and that is all we are focused on,” he said.

Powell said the Fed is monitoring developments stemming from the coronavirus, which he said “could lead to disruptions in China that spill over to the rest of the global economy.”

In response to lawmakers’ questions, Powell said it was too early to assess the threat the virus poses to the U.S. economy but he noted that the U.S. economy “is in a very good place” with strong job creation and moderate growth.

Powell said there will be effects on China through the first half of this year and likely there will be some impact on the United States, but it’s too soon to say how adverse the U.S. impact will be.

“We will be watching that carefully. And the question we will be asking is will these be persistent effects that could lead to a material reassessment of the outlook’’ in the United States, Powell told the House committee.

The daily death toll in China topped 100 for the first time, pushing the number of deaths in China from the virus above 1,000.

China remained mostly closed to business Tuesday with around 60 million people under virtual quarantine in the country, raising concerns about what the loss of production in China, the world’s second largest economy, will do to global supply chains.

China accounts for more than 80% of smartphone and notebook production globally and more than half of global TV and server production, according to recent estimates.

Powell’s comments came in testimony to the House Financial Services Committee before he speaks to the committee later Tuesday. On Wednesday, Powell will testify to the Senate Banking Committee.

Powell, who has made frequent visits with both House and Senate lawmakers to understand their concerns, faced sharp questioning from Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., about a recent photo that showed him attending a party at the Washington home of Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon.

Porter, noting that Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner as well as presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway were at the Bezos party at a time when Trump has continued to pressure the Fed to lower interest rates.

Powell said he did not talk to any of those folks and basically was at the event to escort his son and his son’s new wife to the party where he introduced them to former Trump Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Porter also pressed Powell if he knew how costly child care had become. Powell said, “It costs a lot.” But he said he didn’t know exact amounts because all of his children were grown.

The Fed cut interest rates three times last year after having raised rates four times in 2018. Powell said the rate cuts were made to “cushion the economy from weaker global growth and trade developments and to promote a faster return of inflation” to the Fed’s 2% target. But since the last quarter-point rate cut in October, which reduced the Fed’s key policy rate to a range of 1.5% to 1.75%, the Fed has kept policy on hold. Powell’s remarks Tuesday indicated there had been no change in that stance.

The Fed, Powell said, “believes that the current stance of monetary policy will support continued economic growth, a strong labor market and inflation returning to the committee’s 2% symmetric objective.”

Powell said that as long as incoming economic data “remains broadly consistent with this outlook, the current stance of monetary policy will likely remain appropriate.”

The Fed chairman expressed satisfaction with many economic barometers, noting that the expansion is well into its 11th year — the longest period of uninterrupted U.S. growth on record. Last year, the economy was being buffeted by a global slowdown and rising uncertainty sparked by President Donald Trump’s trade war with China and other nations.

Powell said while the “global headwinds had intensified last summer,” the economy proved resilient, with the economy growing at a moderate pace in the second half of last year and unemployment, now at 3.6% near a half-century low.

The chairman noted that job openings remain plentiful and employers appear increasingly willing to hire workers with fewer skills and train them. He said these developments mean the benefits of a strong job market are becoming more widely shared, with employment gains broad-based across all racial and ethnic groups and levels of education.

Powell suggested that the federal government should capitalize on low borrowing rates to put the federal budget on a sounder footing. The Trump administration released a new budget Monday that projects that the deficit will top $1 trillion this year before starting to decline. The Congressional Budget Office sees the deficit remaining above $1 trillion over the next decade.

Putting the budget on a sustainable path while the economy is strong, the chairman said, would help ensure that policymakers would have the room to use the budget to help stabilize the economy during a recession.

Powell said one longer-run challenge the economy faces is low labor force participation among prime-age workers. He said that while this participation rate has been rising recently, it “remains lower than in most other advanced economies and there are troubling labor market disparities across racial and ethnic groups and across regions of the country.”

The Fed chairman said that another longer-run challenge weak productivity growth. He said finding ways to boost worker participation and productivity would benefit all Americans and should remain a national priority.

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