After four straight three-quarter-point interest rate hikes, the U.S. Federal Reserve is expected to announce a smaller half-point increase in its key rate Wednesday, a first step toward dialling back its efforts to combat inflation.
At the same time, the Fed is expected to signal that it plans more hikes next year than it had previously forecast to try to conquer the worst inflation bout in four decades. And most economists think chair Jerome Powell will stress that the Fed will likely keep its benchmark rate at its high point through next year, even after the hikes have ended.
The Fed’s decision Wednesday will follow a government report Tuesday that provided hopeful signs that inflation is finally easing from chronically high levels. Gas prices fell, the cost of used cars, furniture and toys declined, and the costs of services from hotels to airfares to car rentals dropped.
The six rate hikes the Fed has already imposed this year have raised its key short-term rate to a range of 3.75 per cent to four per cent, its highest level in 15 years. Cumulatively, the hikes have led to much costlier borrowing rates for consumers as well as companies, ranging from mortgages to auto and business loans. Worries have grown that the Fed is raising rates so much in its drive to curb inflation that it will trigger a recession next year.
Economists expect further but lower hikes
Yet with price increases still uncomfortably high — inflation was 7.1 per cent in November compared with a year earlier — Powell and other Fed officials have underscored that they expect to keep rates at their peak for an extended period.
With inflation pressures now easing, though, most economists think the Fed will further slow its hikes and raise its key rate by just a quarter-point at its next meeting early next year.
“The data [Tuesday] kind of fits with our idea that the Fed will downshift further in February,” said Matthew Luzzetti, an economist at Deutsche Bank and a former research analyst at the Fed. “Downshifting helps to maximize their prospects of a soft landing,” in which the Fed’s rate hikes would slow growth and tame inflation but not tip the economy into a recession.
On Wednesday, members of the Fed’s rate-setting committee will also update their projections for interest rates and other economic barometers for 2023 and beyond. Most analysts have forecast that they will pencil in a peak range of at least 4.75 per cent to five per cent, or even five per cent to 5.25 per cent, up from their September forecast of 4.5 per cent to 4.75 per cent.
Despite Powell’s recent hard-line remarks — he said late last month that “we have not seen clear progress on slowing inflation” — he and other Fed officials have made clear that they’re ready to dial down the pace of rate hikes. In doing so, they will have time to assess the impact of the increases they’ve already imposed. Those hikes have sent home sales plummeting and are starting to reduce rents on new apartments, a leading source of high inflation.
Fed officials have also said they want rates to reach “restrictive” levels that slow growth and hiring, and bring inflation down to their annual target of two per cent.
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“What policy rate is sufficiently restrictive we will only learn over time by watching how the economy evolves,” said Lisa Cook, one of seven members of the Fed’s board of governors. “Given the tightening already in the pipeline, I am mindful that monetary policy works with long lags.”
Fed officials have stressed that more important than how fast they raise rates is how long they keep them at or near their peak. In September, the Fed forecast it would do so through 2023. Yet Wall Street investors are now betting that the Fed will reverse course and start cutting rates before the end of next year.