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Fed's Bostic: Business optimism reversing as tariff talks escalate

Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Raphael Bostic said the optimism that his business contacts displayed earlier this year has "almost completely faded" as uncertainty around trade discussions heightens.

Bostic, who votes on monetary policy this year at the Fed, said June 18 that the businesses he talked to earlier in 2018 had been upbeat given the cut in the U.S. corporate tax rate to 21%, down from 35%. But that optimism has now been "replaced by concerns about trade policy and tariffs," he said in a speech in Savannah, Ga.

"Perceived uncertainty has risen markedly," he said in prepared remarks. "Projects already underway are continuing, but I get the sense that the bar for new investment is currently quite high."

Bostic's comments reflect a risk that the Fed may face as it continues tightening monetary policy. He is a voter this year on the Federal Open Market Committee, which hiked its benchmark federal funds rate June 13.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said after the FOMC's decision that uncertainty around trade has picked up, with officials "beginning to hear reports of companies holding off on investments." But he also said the Fed has not yet seen any change in the data.

Bostic has previously said he supports three rate hikes in 2018, despite the FOMC signaling last week that it may raise rates four times this year.

He said he is comfortable with the Fed's plans to continue moving U.S. monetary policy away from a stimulative stance and back toward a neutral one, where the Fed aims to keep the economy on an even keel. But he said the exact neutral level "is not something we know with precision," though the Fed appears to be reaching the lower end of its estimates with its rate hikes.

Overall, he said, the economy "appears to be in a pretty good place," with the unemployment rate down to 3.8% and inflation near the Fed's 2% target.

"The goal is to keep this expansion going in a sustainable manner," he said. "We want to ensure that the economy is not overheating, but we also do not want monetary policy to become too restrictive and threaten to choke off the expansion."