The Fed Might Not Be Able to Stop a U.S. Recession

Michael Klein

The Federal Reserve seems a lot more concerned about the state of the economy than it’s been letting on.

The Fed lowered its target interest rate by a quarter point on Sept. 18, the second such cut since July – and the first reductions since the Great Recession more than 10 years ago.

Judging by the words of Fed Chair Jerome Powell, this isn’t that big a deal. In his statement following the decision, he said: “We took this step to help keep the U.S. economy strong in the face of some notable developments and to provide insurance against ongoing risks.”

True, the economy has been pretty strong for 10 years now, pushing the unemployment rate to a near record-low 3.7%. But in my view, as an economist and expert on monetary policy, Powell’s calm words belie a deeper concern. And, if a recession is on the way, the Fed may be ill-equipped to fight it.

Trouble Brewing

A clear sign of the Fed’s concern is the back-to-back rate cuts, something that only happens during recessions or in anticipation of a downturn.

But there are many other troubling signs in the economic outlook.

For example, earlier this month, the Institute for Supply Management reported that manufacturing activity has slowed significantly. The sector actually contracted in August for the first time in three years. And although the unemployment rate remains historically low, jobs growth is slowing as a result of global trade turbulence.

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