This past week, on March 20, 2019, Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell announced the US central bank would not raise interest rates in 2019. The Fed’s benchmark rate, called the Fed Funds rate, is thus frozen at 2.375% for the foreseeable future, i.e. leaving the central bank virtually no room to lower rates in the event of the next recession, which is now just around the corner.
The Fed’s formal decision to freeze rates follows Powell’s prior earlier January 2019 announcement that the Fed was suspending its 2018 plan to raise rates three to four more times in 2019. That came in the wake of intense Trump and business pressure in December to get Powell and the Fed to stop raising rates. The administration had begun to panic by mid-December as financial markets appeared in freefall since October. Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, hurriedly called a dozen, still unknown influential big capitalists and bankers to his office in Washington the week before the Christmas holiday. With stock markets plunging 30% in just six weeks, junk bond markets freezing up, oil futures prices plummeting 40%, etc., it was beginning to look like 2008 all over again. Public mouthpieces for the business community in the media and business press were calling for Trump to fire Fed chair Powell and Trump on December 24 issued his strongest threat and warning to Powell to stop raising rates to stop financial markets imploding further.
In early January, in response to the growing crescendo of criticism, Powell announced the central bank would adopt a ‘wait and see’ attitude whether or not to raise rates further. The Fed’s prior announced plan, in effect during 2017-18, to raise rates 3 to 4 more times in 2019 was thus swept from the table. So much for perennial academic economist gibberish about central banks being independent! Or the Fed’s long held claim that it doesn’t change policy in response to developments in financial markets!
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