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Fed Forecasts Spur Traders to Ignore Warnings, Bet on Rate Cuts

Nov. 21 (Bloomberg) -- The Federal Reserve's first set of quarterly economic forecasts fueled speculation that it will cut interest rates again, contrary to warnings by policy makers in the past two weeks.

The degree of ``uncertainty'' about the growth outlook is greater than that for inflation, officials said in a supplement to minutes of their October meeting released yesterday. While officials expressed confidence price increases will ease, they viewed markets as ``still fragile and were concerned that an adverse shock'' would worsen economic risks.

The wariness about a continued credit collapse pushed odds of a rate cut next month up to 92 percent, according to federal funds futures, from as low as 70 percent. Investors differ with Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and other officials, who have said this month that the dangers of a slower expansion and faster inflation were ``roughly'' balanced.

``Risks aren't balanced,'' said Michael Feroli, a former Fed board staff member who is now an economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York. ``Recent developments in financial markets increase the likelihood that they will ease.''

As part of its new release on the three-year economic estimates of Fed governors and district-bank presidents, the central bank discussed risks to the outlook. ``Most participants judged that the uncertainty attending'' their growth forecasts ``was above typical levels seen in the past,'' the Fed said.

Growth Forecast

Officials predicted growth will slow to as low as 1.8 percent in 2008, according to the middle range of projections. That would be the weakest since the 2001 recession. The Fed's historical estimates indicate that the actual expansion is likely to be within 1.3 percentage points above or below the estimate.

In June, policy makers anticipated 2.5 percent to 2.75 percent growth next year. Officials left their projection for inflation, excluding food and energy costs, little changed at a 1.7 percent to 1.9 percent pace for the next two years.

``The focus in the minutes is on the downside risks to growth,'' which contrasts with an ``optimistic inflation forecast,'' said Robert Eisenbeis, the former head of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. ``They clearly will respond if needed.''

The Federal Open Market Committee lowered its benchmark rate by a quarter point on Oct. 31, to 4.5 percent, after reducing borrowing costs a half point in September.

Since the meeting, banks have warned of billions of dollars of losses on debt tied to subprime mortgages. Stocks have also retreated, while the number of private economists predicting a recession has risen, according to the National Association for Business Economics.

`Dent' Confidence

While the ``most likely'' scenario is consumer spending and business investment rise at a ``moderate'' pace, Fed officials recognized a market shock ``could further dent investor confidence and significantly increase the downside risks,'' the minutes said.

Such a disruption could come from ``a sharp deterioration in credit quality or disclosure of unusually large and unanticipated losses,'' the Fed said.

In their speeches and public remarks, policy makers have said they expect growth to accelerate by the middle of 2008 and warned that surging energy and commodity prices, and a falling dollar, may push up inflation.

`Rough Patch'

Economic reports confirming a ``rough patch'' in the economy ``would not, by themselves, suggest to me that the current stance of monetary policy is inappropriate,'' Fed Governor Randall Kroszner said Nov. 16. Further rate cuts may increase the risk inflation will accelerate, he signaled.

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President William Poole said in a Nov. 15 interview with Dow Jones that ``there can only be chaos'' if the Fed follows traders' expectations in setting policy.

``When you think about the effects of monetary policy, you are going to be thinking about several quarters ahead,'' said Douglas Elmendorf, a former assistant director of the Fed's research and statistics division who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. ``The FOMC is very focused on maintaining and building their credibility on keeping inflation low.''

Yesterday's forecasts are the product of a 1 1/2-year review commissioned by Bernanke to improve how the Fed communicates its policy objectives. He said in a Nov. 14 speech that the new reports will help show ``how our policy decisions respond to incoming information and will enhance our accountability.''

Less Optimistic

Fed policy makers are less optimistic about the 2008 expansion rate than private economists. The median Fed estimate of about 2.25 percent is less than the 2.4 percent consensus prediction of the Blue Chip survey of forecasters. Four of 17 Fed governors and presidents expect growth of 1.8 percent or less.

Fed officials will have more opportunities to send investors a message before the Dec. 11 meeting. Next week, at least four regional-bank presidents speak, including Philadelphia's Charles Plosser and William Poole of St. Louis. Bernanke speaks Nov. 29 at an event in Charlotte, North Carolina.

``There is a very slow movement toward understanding the severity of financial market problems and the impact on the economy,'' said Kurt Karl, chief U.S. economist at Swiss Reinsurance Co. in New York. ``The question is, what is the Fed waiting for?''


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Article publication date: 20 Pluviôse Ray80 (21 Nov 2007)


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