Fed expected to tune out election and hold rates in 2020

Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, speaks during a Joint Economic Committee hearing on the economic outlook on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 13, 2019. Bloomberg photo by Al Drago.

Federal Reserve officials won't allow the 2020 presidential election to sway their monetary policy decisions and will keep interest rates on hold for the next two years, according to economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

In a Dec. 2-4 poll of 31 economists, respondents abandoned their previous forecast -- from October -- for a rate cut in 2020. Their median responses show they now expect the target range for the federal funds rate to stay put at 1.5%-1.75% through the end of 2021.

A majority also rejected the notion that the looming election will have any influence on policy.

"The Fed is on hold for the foreseeable future, but would cut rates if warranted," Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James Financial Inc., said in his response comments. "Despite a high level of noise, the Fed will remain above the political fray."

Fed policy makers have lowered rates three times this year. Chairman Jerome Powell signaled a pause after the most recent move, in October, and said rates would be on hold until officials saw a "material reassessment" in their economic outlook.


About 90% of respondents agreed with the Fed's recent appraisal that their 2019 rate cuts had helped support economic growth in the U.S. and that monetary policy was now "in a good place."

Economists also saw a decreased chance of recession in 2020. Asked to assign a probability to the likelihood that the Fed's benchmark interest rate will drop to zero next year, the median response was 20%, down from 30% in October.

Despite that optimism, respondents overwhelmingly indicated that risks to growth and inflation remained tilted to the downside. They also continued to point to international trade disputes as the single biggest threat to the U.S. economy in 2020, followed by slowing global growth.

Several Fed officials have said they are watching closely for any indication that trade uncertainties, which have already dampened business investment in the U.S., might cause hiring to slow significantly.

"The most important variability will be payroll employment, which I currently anticipate will be below consensus and Federal Reserve expectations," said Hugh Johnson, of Hugh Johnson Advisors.

The U.S. Labor Department is set to release its November employment report on Friday. In a separate Bloomberg survey, economists have predicted the report will show 185,000 new jobs were created in the month. Over the last three months, gains have averaged 176,000.

Economists said in the latest poll that policy makers would be forced to alter their outlook if payrolls dropped below 100,000 for a few months.

More than two thirds of the respondents also predicted the Fed would eventually establish a standing repo facility, a permanent program aimed at reducing volatility in overnight interest rates by injecting liquidity into the market for repurchase agreements. The Fed has been conducting ad hoc lending into that market since September.

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