Powell’s closer attention to cooling job market boosts hopes for Fed rate cuts

Fed Chair Jay Powell on Wednesday again emphasized that he is paying closer attention to a cooling job market, another sign to market watchers that the central bank is inching closer to cutting interest rates.

“I think for a long time, we’ve had to focus heavily on the inflation mandate,” Powell told House lawmakers, referring to one side of the central bank’s dual charge to maintain both stable prices and maximum employment.

“But I think now we’re getting to the place where the labor market is getting pretty much in balance to where it needs to be, and so we’re looking at both sides.”

The Fed has held rates at their highest levels in 23 years for nearly a year in an effort to push inflation down.

Now, as inflation once again starts to cool, Powell is making it clear that the central bank is increasingly aware of the risks posed by a cooling labor market.

The latest evidence of that came last Friday when a new report showed the unemployment rate in June ticked up a tenth of a percent for the second month in a row to 4.1%. While that is still historically low, it’s up from 3.4% early last year.

Read more: How does the labor market affect inflation?

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: Federal Reserve Bank Chair Jerome Powell speaks during a House Financial Services Committee hearing on the Federal Reserve's Semi-Annual Monetary Policy Report at the U.S. Capitol on July 10, 2024 in Washington, DC. Powell discussed lowering inflation rates, stating WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: Federal Reserve Bank Chair Jerome Powell speaks during a House Financial Services Committee hearing on the Federal Reserve's Semi-Annual Monetary Policy Report at the U.S. Capitol on July 10, 2024 in Washington, DC. Powell discussed lowering inflation rates, stating

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell speaks before House lawmakers Wednesday. (Photo by Bonnie Cash/Getty Images) (Bonnie Cash via Getty Images)

Powell’s acknowledgment of those risks in the labor market is a sign to Fed watchers that a rate cut is nearing, perhaps as early as September.

Yet the central bank head stopped short Wednesday of being specific about when any cuts could begin, making it clear that more data about cooling inflation is still needed.

Powell said he has some confidence that inflation is on its way down to target, but it’s more a question now of whether the central bank is sufficiently confident inflation is coming back to the goal of 2%.

“I am not prepared to say that yet,” Powell said.

Read more: What the Fed rate decision means for bank accounts, CDs, loans, and credit cards

Powell spoke Wednesday before the House Financial Services Committee as part of his semiannual required congressional appearances. He testified before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday.

Powell also spent some more time Wednesday, as he did Tuesday, defending the independence of the central bank during a red-hot election year.

House Financial Services Committee chair Patrick McHenry told Powell, “You must not allow politics to cloud the Fed’s monetary policy.”

Another Republican lawmaker, Mike Lawler, asked Powell whether he acknowledges that a rate cut in September “could be viewed as political just 30-60 days before an election.”

Powell rejected that politics would play a part in any decision made by the central bank.

“It is just not appropriate for us to get into thinking about election cycles,” he said.

And he pledged to be at his desk following the outcome of the November election, regardless of the outcome.

“This is my fourth presidential election at the Fed, and I can tell you, we come to work the next day and do our jobs.”

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