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Fed’s Clarida keeps door open to October cut; others less sure

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BOSTON/WASHINGTON — U.S. Federal Reserve officials on Friday left the door open to an interest rate cut but gave no guarantees as they continued debating how the final prop of U.S. economic growth, household consumption, is holding up.

“The Committee will proceed on a meeting-by-meeting basis to assess the economic outlook as well as the risks to the outlook, and it will act as appropriate to sustain growth, a strong labor market, and a return of inflation to our symmetric 2 percent objective,” Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida said in prepared remarks at an event in Boston.

His speech echoed the words of Fed Chair Jerome Powell two weeks ago that many interpreted as signaling an openness to another interest rate cut at the central bank’s next meeting on Oct. 29-30. It was also in line with those of other policymakers who emphasized this week that they are open minded about future policy decisions.

The Fed cut interest rates for the first time in more than a decade in July. It did so again at its subsequent policy meeting in September in what Powell and some others have characterized as “insurance” against headwinds to the economy from slowing global growth and the U.S.-China trade war.

Since the meeting, economic data has increased fears that trade tensions are spilling over to the broader economy. U.S. manufacturing activity tumbled to a more than 10-year low and service sector activity fell to a three-year low in September. Consumer spending, which has been driving U.S. growth, has also begun to moderate.

But consumer spending, which accounts for roughly two thirds of U.S. activity, remains key as policymakers weigh whether more cuts are needed. U.S. retail sales fell for the first time in seven months in September, data on Wednesday showed.

Dallas Federal Reserve bank president Robert Kaplan said at an event in Washington that he is currently “agnostic” about whether the Fed should cut rates at its upcoming October meeting, arguing it may be wise to see more information before adding a third rate reduction to the two the central bank has already approved this year.

“This could break either way,” Kaplan said. Despite risks tilted toward a worse-than-expected economic outcome, “it may be wise to take a little time to assess and continue to turn over a few more cards.”

Kaplan, who is not a voter on interest rate policy this year, said he expected debate at the upcoming policy meeting to focus on whether a slowing global economy has moved beyond dragging down U.S. manufacturing and investment, and begun to hit the U.S. consumer.

Consumption is currently holding up growth, and Kaplan said he expects that to continue. It is, however, a “fragile” situation that could warrant further Fed action, he said.

Kansas City Fed President Esther George, who has dissented from both rate cuts this year, was more concrete in her interest rate assessment in a speech to a conference in Denver on Friday.

“My own outlook for the economy does not call for a monetary policy response,” George said. “”While weakness in manufacturing and business investment is evident, it is not clear that monetary policy is the appropriate tool to offset the risks faced by businesses in those sectors when weighted against the costs that could be associated with such action.”

The only data that would change her view would be something showing U.S. consumers really beginning to suffer from the effects of trade uncertainty and slowing growth.

“Should downside risks spill over…in a way that fundamentally affects the consumer and shifts the overall outlook, a monetary policy response may be required,” George said.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte, Howard Schneider, Lindsay Dunsmuir and Ann Saphir; Writing by Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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