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Will There Be a Recession This Year? Fed Minutes Offer Clues

It’s the million dollar question for economists and investors alike: Is the U.S. headed for a recession this year?

According to yesterday’s Federal Reserve minutes, the answer is: It’s not around the corner. The central bank is likely to hold off on any rate hike or cut this year – though they did not rule out the possibility of a move.

“Several participants noted that their views of the appropriate target range for the federal funds rate could shift in either direction based on incoming data and other developments,’’ according to minutes released Wednesday of the Fed’s March 19-20 meeting.

At the March meeting, officials voted to hold rates steady. The target policy rate was left in a historically low range of 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent. (This, after raising interest rates four times in 2018).

What does this all mean? The U.S. economy is still relatively healthy, with low unemployment and subdued inflation. The economic expansion, which began 10 years ago, “almost certainly will become the longest on record,’’ this summer, Federal Reserve vice chairman Richard Clarida said in prepared remarks for the Institute of International Finance policy summit, Reuters reported today.

“That’s the million-dollar question. Everyone wants to know if there will be a recession,’’ said Michael Reynolds, investment strategy officer at Glenmede, an investment and wealth management firm with more than $37 billion in assets under management. “Calling for a recession in the next 12 months is premature.’’

There’s still room for U.S. equities to grow, there’s a small rebound in global economies, and filings for jobless claims are the lowest since 1969–so long ago that “The Beatles Abbey Road album was on the charts,’’ Reynolds said.

The Fed’s outlook also remained positive. “Participants generally expected economic activity to continue to expand, labor markets to remain strong and inflation to remain near 2 percent,’’ according to the minutes.

The Fed, however, did strike a cautious note.

Policy makers noted “significant uncertainties” that include Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, slowdowns in Europe and China and President Trump’s continuing trade war.

“Economic growth in the remaining quarters of 2019 and in the subsequent couple of years would likely be a little lower, on balance, than they had previously forecast,” according to the minutes. “Reasons cited for these downward revisions included disappointing news on global growth and less of a boost from fiscal policy than had previously been anticipated.”

Glenmede’s Reynolds said the Fed minutes are “in line with the communication they provided after the meeting. It’s a more patient approach; more of a wait-and-see. They don’t want to get overextended.’’

Still, The Wall Street Journal said today in its survey this month that economists have steadily raised their assessment of the risk of recession. In April, economists saw a 26% probability of a recession in the next 12 months, up from 25% in March and 18% in October, according to the Journal’s survey.

“Some risks have been rising, but not to the extent that we need to worry,’’ Reynolds said. “We need to have our ears perked up, but the risks are sort of balanced.’’

Or as the Beatles sang, Let It Be.