The Federal Reserve will likely increase interest rates by a quarter percentage point at the conclusion of its two-day meeting, marking the 10th increase since March 2022, taking the Fed’s benchmark borrowing rate to a target range of 5%-5.25%. However, the real mystery lies in how the central bank proceeds from here. Investors want to know if the Fed is done hiking, or if it will leave the option open for tightening further to fight inflation.
Inflation remains at the forefront of official thinking, with recent indicators pointing to a softening but only to a level that is still above the Fed’s 2% target. For instance, the Dallas Fed compiles a gauge called the “trimmed mean” for personal consumption expenditures that essentially throws out high and low readings. That is showing annual inflation around 4.7% in March, little changed since August 2022 and up from a 3.9% pace in March 2022. The consumer price index was at 5% in March, compared with 8.5% a year ago. None of those figures are satisfactory for Fed officials.
The Fed must also consider the economy and the nettlesome problems in the financial world. A looming recession appears to be getting closer, with gross domestic product growing at just a 1.1% annualized pace in the first quarter and signs of cracks appearing in the labor market.
All these crosscurrents will lead the Fed to signal a policy pivot to the market this week. The firm’s economists expect the FOMC to tweak language in the post-meeting statement indicating a change ahead. Fed policymakers will stress that interest rates need to remain restrictive even though there may not be any additional increases on the way. The aim would be to maintain the central bank’s inflation-fighting credentials while also acknowledging the other stresses and the ability now to simply let the previous hikes run their course through the economy.
To be sure, while the market is anticipating a “dovish” Fed, inclined to halt rate rises and start cutting later this year, stubbornly high prices could change that. Inflation has proven to be more persistent than officials anticipated.
In fact, Citi sees not only an increase at this week’s meeting but also additional hikes in June and July before the Fed finally pulls back. The next Fed policy meeting comes in six weeks, on June 13-14, and April’s consumer price report is due in one week, on May 10.
There may be some variety in opinion among Fed officials who generally move in unison, with remarks since the beginning of March reflecting divergent views between those who are expecting a policy change against those who still see inflation as the top priority. The uncertainty is palpable, but investors remain hopeful that the Fed will strike a delicate balance between signaling a pause and leaving the door open for further tightening if necessary.
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