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More Fed officials say caution is needed before more rate hikes

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RIVERWOODS, Ill./CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Reuters) - Another clutch of U.S. Federal Reserve officials said on Wednesday they would be cautious about any further increases in interest rates so that the central bank could assess growing risks to an otherwise solid U.S. economic outlook.

The presidents of three of the 12 Fed regional banks, from Chicago, St. Louis and Atlanta, all pointed to a need for greater clarity on the state of the economy before extending the central bank’s rate hike campaign into a fourth year.

Two of the three, Charles Evans of Chicago and James Bullard of St. Louis, are voting members this year on the Federal Open Market Committee, the bank’s policy-setting panel. Bullard has long been critical of the Fed’s rate increases, begun in December 2015, but the caution from Evans is new, even if he still asserted that rates probably need to rise more.

The remarks from the three come less than a week after Fed Chairman Jerome Powell eased market concerns that policy makers were ignoring signs of an economic slowdown. Powell said he was aware of the risks and would be patient and flexible in policy decisions this year.

The new tone of caution comes after the U.S. stock market dropped precipitously in the fourth quarter of 2018, suffering its worst December performance since the Great Depression. Other signs of tightening financial conditions surfaced as well, including a sharp slowdown in issuance of corporate bonds.

Evans has been among the most vocal backers of gradually tightening U.S. monetary policy. In a speech in Riverwoods, Illinois, his first public comments since November, he nodded to an array of “tough-to-read” factors highlighted by the recent market selloff, but penciled in a forecast for reasonably good U.S. growth and employment in 2019 and beyond.

His prepared remarks gave no hard timeline for further rate hikes but they hinted he could agree to stand pat until around mid year to see how factors like global growth and U.S. trade and fiscal policy pan out.

Bullard, meanwhile, told the Wall Street Journal that while the Fed had “a good level of the policy rate today,” there was no rush to push them higher.

The Fed last raised rates in December, to a range of 2.25 percent to 2.50 percent, to conclude a full year of quarterly increases in its benchmark lending rate.

Minutes from that meeting will be released later on Wednesday and could shed more light on how policy makers assessed the economy as they agreed to raise rates and, at that time, projected two more increases in 2019..

Overall, that marked the ninth increase of a quarter percentage point since December 2015, when the Fed began lifting interest rates from near zero, where they had been since the financial crisis in 2008.

Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic, who earlier this week said the Fed was likely to need at most a single rate increase this year, on Wednesday elaborated on that view as driven by conversations with business executives, who say they have become more defensive in preparing for slower growth by paying down debt and holding off on new plans.

Those conversations “are not consistent with the business sector ramping up,” Bostic said in remarks prepared for delivery to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. Bostic, who backed all four rate hikes in 2018 as an FOMC voter, does not have a policy vote on the panel this year.

Meanwhile, back in November Evans had said raising rates to about 3.25 percent would be a “reasonable assumption.” Powell and other top officials in recent weeks have stressed that they are listening to the concerns implied by the stock market selloff that began in early October, and traders are very skeptical of much more tightening this year.

“A case can be made for a reasonably good 2019 economic outcome,” said Evans. “But I do not want to downplay the risks too much.”

Reporting by Howard Schneider in Chattanooga and Jonathan Spicer in Chicago; Writing by Dan Burns; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama

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