The Federal Reserve is expected to leave interest rates unchanged on Wednesday for the first time since the U.S. central bank kicked off a historically aggressive round of monetary policy tightening in March of 2022. But don’t call it a pivot or a pause. Suppose the Fed does decide to keep rates steady. In that case, its policymakers, at the end of their two-day meeting, are likely to signal more rate increases are still to come once they take the time to assess how the economy is evolving, whether the financial system remains stable, and if inflation is easing off.
The Fed’s dual goals are to stabilize prices and achieve full employment. The first objective is usually defined as a price target of around 2 percent; the second goal requires an unemployment rate of roughly 4 or 5 percent.
But recent events have pushed the Fed to reconsider how it approaches its jobs. For example, the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank in New York last week was the most severe banking crisis in the country since 2008. The Fed stepped in to provide emergency liquidity to those banks after depositors feared their money was at risk, and the Fed has started buying Treasury bills to boost cash reserves and make more short-term lending available in financial markets.
Some officials worry that more rate hikes could further weaken an already slowing economy, while others fear that the inflation problem is not yet under control. The Fed’s chair, Jerome Powell, has argued that the current pause allows them to weigh these issues before deciding what to do next.
However, Powell clarified that the Fed remains committed to achieving its inflationary and job-creation goals. He cited a rebound in hiring and a sharp decline in jobless rates, suggesting that the economy can slow without falling into recession or excessively reducing job creation. He added that lower-than-expected inflation had lowered the likelihood of a need to raise rates shortly.
The current expectation is that the Fed will keep rates steady through 2023. But if more policymakers at the Fed raise their rate-hike projections, they may push its median forecast to a higher level by year’s end. That would create a more muddled message about what the Fed signals to the market. Many investors believe that a Fed pause is more likely to be followed by a rate cut than a steady rate climb. That view is rooted in an assumption that the central bank wants to avoid economic weakness and high unemployment in the run-up to 2020, an election year. That, in turn, makes it even more critical for the Fed to be cautious. A rate cut would be more dramatic than a steady rise in interest rates, which could hurt economic growth. And that’s something no one wants.
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