Fed Comments Suggest Rate Cut Far From Certain

Federal Reserve officials Tuesday said the U.S. economic outlook is unclear, but credit market strains that led the central bank to cut interest rates sharply last month are easing, suggesting a follow-up rate cut is not a done deal.

"These are uncertain times," San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President Janet Yellen said on Tuesday. "Any forecast and any analysis of events should be made with a great deal of humility about its correctness. And that's why I am keeping an open mind about prospects for the future," she said in a speech to a Town Hall-Los Angeles public affairs forum.

Yellen is not currently a voter on the Fed's policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee.

Stronger-than-expected employment data in September and large upward revisions to payrolls August and July signal that the outlook for the economy is not darkening as some have feared, St. Louis Fed President William Poole said in a separate speech.

"Financial markets appear to be stabilizing, but they have not returned to normal and are still fragile," Poole, a voting member on the FOMC, told the Industrial Asset Management Council.

The Fed officials' comments come as minutes of the U.S. central bank's Sept. 18 meeting released Tuesday showed policy-makers mainly focused on counteracting turmoil in credit markets as grounds for a hefty half-percentage point cut in benchmark overnight borrowing costs to 4.75 percent.

"Members judged that a lowering of the target funds rate was appropriate to help offset the effects of tighter financial conditions on the economic outlook," the Fed minutes said.

"In order to help forestall some of the adverse effects on the economy that might otherwise arise, all members agreed that a rate cut of 50 basis points at this meeting was the most prudent course of action," the Fed said.

Policy-makers felt they could trim borrowing costs without fanning inflation because price pressures appeared to clearly be moderating, the minutes showed.

Gauging the Chance of a Cut

Stocks rose to record highs as traders interpreted the Fed minutes as signaling that with inflation worries at bay, more interest rate cuts are in store.

However, U.S. Treasurys prices slipped as bond traders anticipated that the Fed could hold interest rates steady now that credit markets are stabilizing.

Markets rate the probability of the Fed leaving rates unchanged at its Oct. 30-31 meeting at 64 percent, as implied by federal funds futures.

Yellen said the U.S. economy turned in a reasonably good performance in the third quarter, helped by robust personal spending, but that effects of recent financial turmoil are more likely to show up in fourth-quarter data.

In particular, "further price declines may be needed to bring housing markets into balance," which coupled with higher mortgage interest rates could still crimp consumption, Yellen said.

Yellen said the Fed's aggressive half-percentage point interest rate cut on Sept. 18, which took the fed funds target to 4.75 percent, will not shield investors from losses on risky positions but was necessary to prevent "unnecessary economic risks."

Yellen said that many of the liquidity problems that swamped financial markets in August are gradually being resolved.

Poole said September's strong jobs report should ease some of worries about risks of an economic downturn.

Last month's jobs report showed that housing market woes were not spilling into the wider economy, as some might have feared.

"Certainly the September report does not suggest that that process has started," Poole said. "I was ready for a unpleasant downward number in the September report because that was long enough into the period of financial turmoil ... but it didn't happen. Some of these people may have quickly found themselves new jobs ... but clearly, the overall employment report was pretty strong."