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Fed Official: Mixed Signals Mean We ‘Could Talk Ourselves Into a Recession’

Fed Official: Mixed Signals Mean We ‘Could Talk Ourselves Into a Recession’

Thomas Barkin, president of the Richmond Federal Reserve, says it’s hard to get a true read on the state of the U.S. economy because of conflicting signals.

“The strength of consumption and the labor market might be saying ‘hold’ or even ‘raise rates,'” Barkin said at an economic outlook conference in Baltimore Tuesday. But “the softness of investment, inflation and the bond market might be saying ‘lower rates.'”

The Federal Open Market Committee voted last week to lower the Fed’s key benchmark interest rate for the third time this year to a range between 1.5% and 1.75%. But it also made it clear that it does not expect another rate cut to occur this year unless there is material evidence showing the U.S. economy is deteriorating. Barkin participates in the Fed’s policy discussions, but he can’t vote on monetary policy.

Uncertainties surrounding the trade war between the U.S. and China, which has been going on for 16 months now, are part of the reason for the recent cuts. Barkin is keeping a close eye on the effect lower interest rates have on fighting the side effects of the trade tiff.

“I don’t discount the idea that we could talk ourselves into a recession — particularly if the uncertainty begins to affect consumer confidence and spending,” he said.

Some sectors of the economy seem just fine, though. The monthly jobs report for October that came out Friday beat expectations with 128,000 jobs added, according to Labor Department data. This quelled some fears that a recent slump in manufacturing and business investment would leak into other areas of the economy.

Barkin thinks a positive development in the U.S.-China trade war would be an even bigger boost to the economic expansion that is now over a decade long because it would “build business confidence, build consumer confidence and lead to increased investment, spending and hiring.”

“American businesses are creative,” Barkin said. “Give them the rules—almost any set of rules — and they will make things happen.”