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Federal Reserve officials suggest more hikes coming ‘soon’

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    Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell testifies before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs in Washington on July 17.

WASHINGTON >> Federal Reserve officials earlier this month said that a strong economy meant that it would “likely soon be appropriate” to boost their benchmark interest rate for a third time this year.

But minutes of their discussions released today also revealed deepening concerns that escalating trade wars could hurt the economy.

The minutes underscore expectations that the central bank is likely to increase its policy rate at its next meeting in September. Many economists believe another rate hike will follow in December.

The Fed has raised rates seven times since late 2015 to make sure the lowest unemployment in nearly 50 years does not trigger unwanted inflation.

The Fed raised rates in March and June, pushing the federal funds rate to a level of 1.75 percent to 2 percent. The rate remained at a record low near zero for seven years from late 2008 to late 2015 as the central bank tried to combat the worst recession since the 1930s with low rates to encourage more borrowing by consumers and businesses.

The minutes, released after the customary three week delay, covered the July 31-Aug. 1 meeting. At that session, Fed officials left rates unchanged while releasing a policy statement that focused on a “strong” economy with solid growth and low unemployment.

The minutes, however, showed growing concerns about the impact of President Donald Trump’s get-tough trade policies, which have imposed tariffs on billions of dollars in imports, triggering China and other trading partners to retaliate with tariffs on U.S. goods.

“Participants observed that if a large-scale and prolonged dispute over trade policies developed, there would likely be adverse effects on business sentiment, investment spending and employment,” Fed officials said.

The minutes listed a number of potential threats from disruptions in business supply chains to potentially triggering “a severe slowdown” in emerging-market countries.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell will deliver a key policy address on Friday at the Fed’s annual gathering in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Investors are watching to see if he signals any possible change in the expected course of interest rates because of the threats posed by a widening trade war.

The minutes said that if the economy remains strong as Fed officials are forecasting then “it would likely soon be appropriate to take another step” to raise rates with “further gradual increases” following.

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