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US Fed ‘closely monitoring’ economy and will ‘act as appropriate’

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CHICAGO : The US central bank is "closely monitoring" trade disputes and the implications for the economy, Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell said on Tuesday.

A day after another Fed official said an interest rate cut could be needed "soon" to preserve economic growth, Mr Powell said the central bank "will act as appropriate to sustain the expansion."

Some analysts saw Mr Powell's comment as opening the door to lowering the benchmark interest rate, which the central bank had not entertained until now.

US President Donald Trump's multi-front trade wars, including the exchange of punishing tariffs with China and new threats to hit Mexico with fresh import duties, have undercut business confidence and raised prices for manufacturers.

And many forecasters - including the International Monetary Fund - have sounded warnings about the trade disputes, calling them the main risk to the outlook and predicting the US and global economies will slow.

An increasing number of economists predict the Fed will have to act to stimulate growth as early as this year.

After four increases in the benchmark lending rate last year, Mr Powell and his Fed colleagues have this year repeatedly said they can remain patient while they gauge how the economy progresses.

But in a speech on Monday, St Louis Federal Reserve Bank president James Bullard said a rate cut "may be warranted soon" given the uncertainty about trade conflicts and inflation hovering below the Fed's 2 per cent target.

Mr Powell just last month said he was "comfortable" with interest rates and the economic outlook, but at a conference on improving Fed communications, he acknowledged that the Fed is prepared to move if necessary.

On the trade front, he said in the prepared remarks: "We do not know how or when these issues will be resolved."

Mr Chris Low of FTN Financial said a rate cut will become necessary as the global slowdown comes to US shores.

"The door is now open to a rate cut discussion at the June meeting in two weeks. We'll see if anyone other than Jay Bullard is willing to step up and cut," Mr Low said in a commentary on Mr Powell's speech. - AFP