Home » Fed to Signal It Has Stomach to Keep Rates High for Longer

Fed to Signal It Has Stomach to Keep Rates High for Longer

An ancient Chinese proverb that counsels “do nothing, and everything will be done” could sum up the Federal Reserve’s latest approach to interest-rate policy.

Fed officials will hold their benchmark federal-funds rate steady at its highest level in more than two decades, around 5.3%, at their two-day policy meeting that begins Tuesday.

Firmer-than-anticipated inflation in the first three months of the year has likely postponed rate cuts for the foreseeable future. As a result, officials are likely to emphasize that they are prepared to hold rates steady, at a level most of them expect will provide meaningful restraint to economic activity, for longer than they previously anticipated.

With no new economic projections at this meeting and minimal changes expected to the Fed’s policy statement, Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s press conference will be the main event on Wednesday. Here’s what to watch:

The inflation setback

Since officials’ meeting in March, the economy has continued to demonstrate strong momentum. But inflation has disappointed after a string of cool readings in the second half of 2023 stirred optimism the central bank might be able to lower rates.

In March, Powell held out the prospect that strong price pressures in January had been a bump on the road to lower inflation. Firm readings for February and March (even if not quite as hot as January) punctured that optimism. They raise the prospect that inflation might settle out closer to 3%. The Fed targets 2% inflation over time.

Powell is likely to repeat a message he delivered two weeks ago, when he said recent data had “clearly not given us greater confidence” that inflation would continue declining to 2% “and instead indicate that it’s likely to take longer than expected to achieve that.”

The focus at this meeting will be how Powell characterizes the interest-rate outlook. While most Wall Street strategists think one or two rate cuts are still possible later this year, the prospect of such a recalibration without clear evidence of economic weakness remains a bigger wild card than it did just a few weeks ago. Some think the Fed might not cut at all.

The Fed’s rate outlook hinges on its inflation forecast, and the most recent data raises two possibilities. One is that the Fed’s expectation that inflation continues to move lower but in an uneven and “bumpy” fashion is still intact—but with bigger bumps. In such a scenario, a delayed and slower pace of rate cuts is still possible this year.

A second possibility is that inflation, rather than on a “bumpy” path to 2%, is getting stuck at a level closer to 3%. Without evidence that the economy is slowing more notably, that could scrap the case for cuts altogether.

Rate policy remains “well-positioned”

Powell is likely to acknowledge that officials have less conviction about when and how much to reduce interest rates. In March, most officials projected two or more rate cuts would be appropriate this year, and a narrow majority penciled in at least three cuts.

Even though officials won’t submit new projections this week, at other meetings without them, Powell has taken the opportunity to reaffirm those one-meeting-old projections or, alternatively, declare them out of date. Wednesday’s meeting is more likely to yield the latter outcome.

At the same time, Fed officials have indicated that they are broadly comfortable with their current stance. This makes a hawkish pivot toward entertaining rate increases unlikely.

“Policy is well-positioned to handle the risks that we face,” Powell said on April 16. If inflation continues to run somewhat stronger, the Fed will simply keep rates at their current level for longer, he said.

As financial-market participants anticipate fewer cuts, longer-dated bond yields will rise. In effect, this achieves the same kind of tightening in financial conditions that Fed officials sought when they raised interest rates last year. Higher yields across the Treasury yield curve should ultimately hit asset values, including stocks, and slow the economy’s momentum.

If inflation stays firm “that is what they will want to see, ultimately,” said Subadra Rajappa, head of U.S. rates strategy at Société Générale.

Low risks of a hawkish pivot

The difficulty for Fed officials in communicating their outlook right now boils down to the conditional nature of the “if/then” statements volunteered by Fed officials, which are premised on one set of outcomes. When the economy performs in ways that officials don’t anticipate, their past statements may no longer be valid.

To that end, Powell might be hard-pressed to rule out any additional increases, even though it is likely premature for officials to meaningfully move in that direction.

But a hawkish pivot, suggesting an increase in rates is more likely than a cut, appears unlikely, for now. Any such shift is likely to unfold over a longer period. It would require some combination of a new, nasty supply shock such as a significant increase in commodity prices; signs that wage growth was reaccelerating; and evidence the public was anticipating higher inflation to continue well into the future.

key measure of wage growth released Tuesday showed that a sustained cooling in wage growth last year may have stalled in the first quarter. Compensation for private-sector workers rose 4.1% in the first quarter from a year earlier, essentially unchanged from the fourth quarter, the Labor Department said.

Signs that wage pressures had been easing were an important factor allaying some Fed officials’ concerns about stickier service-sector inflation. Additional evidence in the coming months that wage growth is accelerating could trouble officials.

The balance sheet

Fed officials have said they could announce “fairly soon” their plan to slow the runoff of their $4.5 trillion in holdings of Treasury securities, which are part of their $7.4 trillion asset portfolio. That has led analysts to expect a formal plan announcing the slowdown at their meeting this week, though some see a chance this happens at their subsequent meeting in June.

At issue is a program the central bank initiated two years ago to passively reduce those holdings by allowing bonds to “run off” its balance sheet without buying new ones. It acquired trillions in Treasurys and mortgage bonds to stabilize financial markets in 2020 and to provide additional stimulus in 2021.

Every month, officials have allowed as much as $60 billion in Treasury securities and as much as $35 billion in mortgage-backed securities to mature without being replaced. The process is designed to shrink the Fed’s balance sheet, which topped out at nearly $9 trillion two years ago.

At the March meeting, officials appeared to coalesce around a plan to reduce the pace of runoff “by roughly half.” Because high interest rates have kept mortgage-bond runoff at a subdued level, officials wouldn’t change that part of their program and instead lower the cap on monthly Treasury redemptions.

The latest changes aren’t related to the setting of interest rates and are instead designed to avoid a messy upheaval in overnight lending markets that occurred five years ago.

The reduction in assets is also draining the financial system of bank deposits held at the Fed, which are called reserves. Officials don’t know at what point reserves will grow scarce enough to push up yields in interbank lending markets. Slowing the process now is seen as preferable by many officials because it could allow the portfolio runoff to continue for somewhat longer without risking the same kind of market ruckus that occurred in 2019.

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