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Fed rate cuts may start as early as July

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Bulk of policymakers have slashed their rate outlook by half a percentage point

WASHINGTON: The United States Federal Reserve on Wednesday signalled interest rate cuts beginning as early as next month, saying it is ready to battle growing global and domestic economic risks as it took stock of rising trade tensions and growing concerns about weak inflation.

Even as the US central bank left its benchmark interest rate unchanged for now, the shift in sentiment since its last policy meeting was marked.

The bulk of Fed policymakers slashed their rate outlook for the rest of the year by roughly half a percentage point, and Fed chairman Jerome Powell said others agree the case for lower rates is building.

The Fed dropped its pledge to be "patient" before rate moves in a sign that it was poised to act, and Mr Powell stopped referring to weak inflation as "transient".

Although economic growth is expected to continue, Mr Powell said policymakers' concerns congealed in the few weeks since the Fed last met in early May, with the unpredictable outcome of President Donald Trump's trade dispute with China and other countries at the top of their minds.

Mr Trump slapped new tariffs on China on May 5, took other steps that upended markets and yet of late has sent hopeful signals of progress in the dispute when he meets Chinese officials next week - difficult terrain for the Fed to navigate.

The US President has repeatedly accused the Fed of undermining his administration's efforts to boost economic growth and has repeatedly demanded that rates be cut.

"Seven weeks ago we had a great jobs report and came out of the last meeting feeling that the economy and our policy was in a good place," Mr Powell said.

"News about trade has been an important driver of sentiment in the interim. We are quite mindful of the risks to the outlook and are prepared to move and use our tools as needed," he said in a press conference following the release of a policy statement in which the central bank said it "will act as appropriate to sustain" a nearly 10-year economic expansion.

Fresh economic projections, released by the Fed, reveal nearly half of the 17 policymakers now show a willingness to lower borrowing costs over the next six months, and seven see rates likely to warrant being lowered by a full half a percentage point - near what bond investors have anticipated.

Though the baseline economic outlook remains "favourable", Mr Powell said, risks continue to rise, including the drag that rising trade tensions may have on US business investment and signs that economic growth is slowing overseas.

"Ultimately the question we are going to be asking ourselves is: Are these risks going to be continuing to weigh on the outlook?" Mr Powell said. - REUTERS