Fed increases rates a quarter point and signals a potential end to hikes


Federal reserve increases rates by a quarter point

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday approved its 10th interest rate increase in just a little over a year and dropped a tentative hint that the current tightening cycle is at an end.

In a unanimous decision widely expected by markets, the central bank’s Federal Open Market Committee raised its benchmark borrowing rate by 0.25 percentage point. The rate sets what banks charge each other for overnight lending but feeds through to many consumer debt products such as mortgages, auto loans and credit cards.

The increase takes the fed funds rate to a target range of 5%-5.25%, the highest since August 2007.

Markets, though, are more focused on whether the Fed will pause here, particularly with lingering concerns over economic growth and a banking crisis that has rattled nerves on Wall Street. Stocks rose slightly and Treasury yields were mostly lower immediately following the Fed news, but stocks struggled to hold on to the gains.

During Wednesday’s news conference, Chairman Jerome Powell said “a decision on a pause was not made today” but noted the change in the statement language around future policy firming was “meaningful.”

The post-meeting statement had only offered some clarity on the future pace of rate hikes — and not by what it said but what it didn’t say. The document omitted a sentence present in the previous statement saying that “the Committee anticipates that some additional policy firming may be appropriate” for the Fed to achieve its 2% inflation goal.

The statement also tweaked language to outline the conditions under which “additional policy firming may be appropriate.” Previously, the FOMC had framed the forward guidance around how it would determine “the extent of future increases in the target range.”

The statement reiterated that the Fed “will take into account the cumulative tightening of monetary policy, the lags with which monetary policy affects economic activity and inflation, and economic and financial developments.”

Taken together, the moves are at least a tenuous nod that while tight policy could remain in effect, the path ahead is less clear for actual interest rate hikes as policymakers assess incoming data and financial conditions.

‘Tighter’ credit for households

Wednesday’s decision comes amid U.S. economic fragility and over the objections of prominent Democratic lawmakers, who urged the Fed this week to stop rate hikes that they insisted could cause a recession and excessive loss of jobs.

However, the labor market has remained strong since the increases started in March 2022. At the same time, inflation is still well above the 2% target that policymakers consider optimum. Multiple officials have said rates probably will need to stay elevated even if the hikes are put on hold.

“Inflation has moderated somewhat since the middle of last year, nonetheless inflation pressures continue to run high and the process of getting inflation back down to 2% has a long way to go,” Powell told reporters.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell: It may be too soon to cut rates

Along with inflation, the Fed has had to deal with tumult in the banking industry that has seen three mid-size banks shuttered.

Though central bank officials insist the industry as a whole is stable, an expected tightening in credit conditions and heightened regulations ahead are expected to weigh further on economic growth that was just 1.1% annualized in the first quarter.

The post-meeting statement noted that “tighter credit conditions for households and businesses are likely to weigh on economic activity, hiring and inflation.” The language was similar to the March statement, which came just after the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank.

The Fed’s own economists at the March FOMC meeting warned that a shallow recession is likely due to the banking issues.

Issues in the financial sector have continued, with JPMorgan Chase on Monday taking over First Republic. Powell said such a transaction was an “exception.” Although the it wasn’t an ideal situation, Powell said it was a “good outcome” for the banking system.

Fed Chair Powell calls JPMorgan acquisition of First Republic an 'exception'

The statement from this week’s meeting also reiterated that economic growth has been “modest” while “job gains have been robust” and inflation is “elevated.”

“Although the FOMC statement is slightly more dovish by what it left out from the last statement, it nonetheless makes it clear that the Fed remains data dependent as it acknowledges that inflation remains elevated but underscores that it wants to monitor the cumulative effects of its aggressive rate hike campaign,” said Quincy Krosby, chief global strategist at LPL Research.

“The statement provides a solid platform from which the Fed can move in any direction without unduly surprising markets,” Krosby added.

Higher rates added to banking issues

While higher rates have compounded the banking problems, Fed officials insist they are focused squarely on inflation.

Recent data points have indicated a softening in price increases, though “sticky” items such as housing costs and medical care have remained higher, while prices that tend to change a lot, such as food and energy, actually have decelerated, according to Atlanta Fed calculations.

Markets are anticipating that slower growth and the possibility of recession will force the Fed to cut rates later this year.

Manufacturing has been in a contraction for the past six months, according to an Institute for Supply Management gauge. However, the services sector, which entails a broader slice of the $26.5 trillion U.S. economy, has been pointing to expansion.

The labor market also has remained resilient. Payroll processing firm ADP reported Wednesday that hiring by private sector companies increased by 296,000 in April, well ahead of economists’ expectations. That served as a potential signal that for all the Fed’s efforts to cool demand for labor and correct a supply-demand imbalance, issues remain.

Correction: The increase takes the fed funds rate to its highest since August 2007. A graphic in this story misstated the date.

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