Fed declines to hike, but points to rates staying higher for longer

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The Federal Reserve held interest rates steady in a decision released Wednesday, while also indicating it still expects one more hike before the end of the year and fewer cuts than previously indicated next year.

That final increase, if realized, would do it for this cycle, according to projections the central bank released at the end of its two-day meeting. If the Fed goes ahead with the move, it would make a full dozen hikes since the policy tightening began in March 2022.

Markets had fully priced in no move at this meeting, which kept the fed funds rate in a targeted range between 5.25%-5.5%, the highest in some 22 years. The rate fixes what banks charge each other for overnight lending but also spills over into many forms of consumer debt.

While the no-hike was expected, there was considerable uncertainty over where the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee would go from here. Judging from documents released Wednesday, the bias appears toward more restrictive policy and a higher-for-longer approach to interest rates.

That outlook weighed on the market, with the S&P 500 falling nearly 1% and the Nasdaq Composite off 1.5%. Stocks oscillated as Fed Chair Jerome Powell took questions during a news conference.

“We’re in a position to proceed carefully in determining the extent of additional policy firming,” Powell said.

However, he added that the central bank would like to see more progress in its fight against inflation.

“We want to see convincing evidence really that we have reached the appropriate level, and we’re seeing progress and we welcome that. But, you know, we need to see more progress before we’ll be willing to reach that conclusion,” he said.

Projections released in the Fed’s dot plot showed the likelihood of one more increase this year, then two cuts in 2024, two fewer than were indicated during the last update in June. That would put the funds rate around 5.1%. The plot allows members to indicate anonymously where they think rates are headed.

Twelve participants at the meeting penciled in the additional hike, while seven opposed it. That put one more in opposition than at the June meeting. Recently confirmed Fed Governor Adriana Kugler was not a voter at the last meeting. The projection for the fed funds rate also moved higher for 2025, with the median outlook at 3.9%, compared with 3.4% previously.

Over the longer term, FOMC members pointed to a funds rate of 2.9% in 2026. That’s above what the Fed considers the “neutral” rate of interest that is neither stimulative nor restrictive for growth. This was the first time the committee provided a look at 2026. The long-run expected neutral rate held at 2.5%.

“Chair Powell and the Fed sent an unambiguously hawkish higher-for-longer message at today’s FOMC meeting,” wrote Citigroup economist Andrew Hollenhorst. “The Fed is projecting inflation to steadily cool, while the labor market remains historically tight. But, in our view, a sustained imbalance in the labor market is more likely to keep inflation ‘stuck’ above target.”

Economic growth seen higher

Along with the rate projections, members also sharply revised up their economic growth expectations for this year, with gross domestic product now expected to increase 2.1% this year. That was more than double the June estimate and indicative that members do not anticipate a recession anytime soon. The 2024 GDP outlook moved up to 1.5%, from 1.1%.

The expected inflation rate, as measured by the core personal consumption expenditures price index, also moved lower to 3.7%, down 0.2 percentage point from June, as did the outlook for unemployment, now projected at 3.8%, compared with 4.1% previously.

There were a few changes in the post-meeting statement that reflected the adjustment in the economic outlook.

The committee characterized economic activity as “expanding at a solid pace,” compared with “moderate” in previous statements. It also noted that job gains “have slowed in recent months but remain strong.” That contrasts with earlier language describing the employment picture as “robust.”

In addition to holding rates at relatively high levels, the Fed is continuing to reduce its bond holdings, a process that has cut the central bank balance sheet by some $815 billion since June 2022. The Fed is allowing up to $95 billion in proceeds from maturing bonds to roll off each month, rather than reinvesting them.

A shift to a more balanced view

The Fed’s actions come at a delicate time for the U.S. economy.

In recent public appearances, Fed officials have indicated a shift in thinking, from believing that it was better to do too much to bring down inflation to a new view that is more balanced. That’s partly due to perceived lagged impacts from the rate hikes, which represented the toughest Fed monetary policy since the early 1980s.

There have been growing signs that the central bank may yet achieve its soft landing of bringing down inflation without tipping the economy into a deep recession. However, the future remains far from certain, and Fed officials have expressed caution about declaring victory too soon.

“We, like many, expected to see the hawkish hold that Powell nodded to at Jackson Hole,” said Alexandra Wilson-Elizondo, deputy chief investment officer of multi-asset strategies at Goldman Sachs Asset Management. “However, the release was more hawkish than expected. While a share of past policy tightening is still in the pipeline, the Fed can go into wait and see mode, hence the pause. However, the main risk remains tarnishing their largest asset, anti-inflation credibility, which warrants favoring a hawkishness reaction function.”

The recent rise in energy prices as well as resilient consumption is likely why the median dot moved higher next year, she said.

“We don’t see a singular upcoming bearish catalyst, although strikes, the shutdown, and the resumption of student loan repayments collectively will sting and drive bumpiness in the data between now and their next decision. As a result, we believe that their next meeting will be live, but not a done deal,” Wilson-Elizondo said.

The jobs picture has been solid, with an unemployment rate of 3.8% just slightly higher than it was a year ago. Job openings have been coming down, helping the Fed mark progress against a supply-demand mismatch that at one point had seen two positions for every available worker.

Inflation data also has gotten better, though the annual rate remains well above the Fed’s 2% target. The central bank’s favored gauge in July showed core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, running at a 4.2% rate.

Consumers, who make up about two-thirds of all economic activity, have been resilient, spending even as savings have diminished and credit card debt has passed the $1 trillion mark for the first time. In a recent University of Michigan survey, respective outlooks for one- and five-year inflation rates hit multiyear lows.

Correction: The Federal funds target rate is a range of 5.25-5.5%. A previous version of this story misstated the end point of the range.

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