Exclusive: Fed’s Mester weighing argument for U.S. rate cut

One Federal Reserve policymaker who opposed the Fed’s recent rate cut is considering whether to support such a move now given risks that a U.S.-China trade war and global slowdown could derail the economy.

“I could see scenarios where we hold rates steady. I could see scenarios where we move the rate down. I think we just have to take the time to really evaluate,” the state of the economy, Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester told Reuters in her first public remarks since the Fed last month lowered borrowing costs for the first time since 2008.

Mester said she still forecasts the U.S. economy to grow in line with its long-run potential this year, with inflation rising to the Fed’s 2%-a-year goal, but risks to that outlook are serious and “weighted to the downside.”

Still, fairly strong economic data, particularly on the labor market and inflation, led Mester to not support what she said was the “close-call” decision to cut rates despite signs of weaker business spending and signs of a manufacturing slowdown.

“A strategy of holding the rate constant would have been my preferred strategy at that point, but it’s a close call,” she said. “Holding pat, depending on where the economy is, could actually be tighter policy.”

Markets are widely expecting the Fed will cut rates when it meets September 17-18. The recent decline in long-term Treasury rates relative to bonds coming due sooner, an unusual occurrence known as a “yield curve inversion,” has preceded recessions in the past and signaled times when Fed policy might have been too restrictive.

But Mester said a global flight to safe assets in light of the U.S.-China trade conflict and global slowdown concerns have also driven bond prices, and that the inversion has not been going on long enough to necessarily predict a recession.

“It’s hard to read a strong signal from that, but you don’t ignore that signal,” Mester said.

Mester does not have a vote on the Fed’s policy-setting committee this year but participates in its deliberations. Two voting policymakers, Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren and Kansas City Fed President Esther George, opposed the July rate cut.

For now, “the salient question” is whether to cut or keep rates where there are, and Mester said she is looking for signs that consumer spending is slowing, which could point to a more serious slowdown.

“I’m going to take this whole time in between meetings to really make a really good assessment of that before I determine where policy is,” she said.