DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Federal Reserve is expected to try to pump a little more air into the tires of the U.S. economy today. Those tires have been showing some signs of a slow leak, and central bankers are hoping to avoid an economic flat. The Fed's widely expected to cut interest rates for only the second time since the Great Recession. But it's not clear that's the boost the economy needs right now.
Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The Fed will announce its decision on interest rates this afternoon. And economist Kathy Bostjancic of Oxford Economics says financial markets will be both watching and listening - watching for the anticipated quarter-point rate cut and also listening for what Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has to say about it.
KATHY BOSTJANCIC: Powell just has to be very clear that we are going to do whatever it takes to sustain the expansion.
HORSLEY: Powell's been trying to send that message. He told an audience in Switzerland this month the Fed is not predicting a recession. But he acknowledged the economy could stall if the ongoing tariff war rattles enough businesspeople to the point where they stop spending.
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JEROME POWELL: Uncertainty around trade policy is causing some companies to hold back now on investment. And so our obligation is to use our tools to support the economy. And that's what we'll continue to do.
HORSLEY: Powell and his colleagues also pointed to trade uncertainty back in July, when they cut interest rates for the first time in more than a decade. The stock market wasn't satisfied, in part because Powell seemed to suggest at the time that might be the last rate cut for a while. Bostjancic says she's hoping for not only an additional rate cut today, but a signal about more cuts in the future.
BOSTJANCIC: It will be clear it's not one and done. But he has to be careful that it's not two and done. He needs to leave the door open clearly to future rate cuts.
HORSLEY: Bostjancic is actually predicting two more rate cuts in October and December. But even with that extra push from the Fed, she thinks economic growth will slow next year to just 1.6%. The trade war isn't the only economic speed bump. You've also got slowing growth in other countries, the dwindling effects of the 2017 tax cut and, after the weekend attack in Saudi Arabia, uncertainty about oil prices.
Nervous about a slowing economy, President Trump has been browbeating the Fed to cut interest rates more aggressively to zero or even lower. Others, including former New York Fed president Bill Dudley, have argued the central bank should stand pat and let Trump feel the political fallout from the trade war he started. Powell has repeatedly insisted the Fed will not be swayed by political pressure from either side.
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POWELL: Political factors play absolutely no role in our process. And my colleagues and I would not tolerate any attempt to include them.
HORSLEY: The stock market is counting on a rate cut today and would likely suffer a sell-off if Powell and his colleagues don't deliver. But economist Matthew Luzzetti of Deutsche Bank says it's not clear lower interest rates will do much to help the nation's struggling factories.
MATTHEW LUZZETTI: We see the driving force of the slowdown, certainly in manufacturing, as trade uncertainty. And cutting the Fed funds rate is not going to be able to fully alleviate that uncertainty.
HORSLEY: Factories and others have cut back on investment, not because it's too expensive to borrow money, but because they're not sure they can sell their products. In that environment, Luzzetti says, cutting interest rates can only do so much. What would help is an end to the trade war. And in recent days, there have been signs of a possible thaw in U.S.-China trade relations. Still, Bostjancic says she's not convinced a trade truce is imminent.
BOSTJANCIC: Right now, that's all talk. You know, we have seen that before. We've seen encouraging talk. And then, both the markets and business leaders - and consumers - everyone ends up being disappointed because not only is there no trade truce, it actually ends up being ratcheted higher.
HORSLEY: The president has already ordered another tariff increase on Chinese imports in mid-October if no agreement is reached before then.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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