Fed leaves interest rates steady as officials debate timing for cuts

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The Federal Reserve is still eyeing three interest rate cuts this year, as officials wait for a bit more confidence inflation is reliably falling to more normal levels.

At the close of their two-day meeting on Wednesday, central bankers left the benchmark interest rate steady at between 5.25 and 5.5 percent. The move was highly expected and leaves borrowing costs at their highest level in 23 years. Officials also released projections that showed three rate cuts to come in 2024, unchanged from their December outlook.

Still, financial markets, analysts, businesses and consumers are eager for a more precise timeline on when the Fed will decide to trim rates. Inflation has made considerable progress since soaring to 40-year highs. But price growth is still too fast, and the Fed isn’t ready to declare victory until officials are more certain that inflation is on its way to their 2 percent target.

In a statement, officials noted that economic activity has been expanding “at a solid pace.” But there’s still uncertainty ahead.

“Job gains have remained strong, and the unemployment rate has remained low,” officials said. “Inflation has eased over the past year but remains elevated.”

Every few months, officials release fresh estimates for where they think rates, inflation, growth and the job market are headed. Policymakers now think the economy will grow 2.1 percent this year, up from the 1.4 percent forecast in December. They also expect the unemployment rate will end the year at 4 percent, down slightly from previous estimates. They also predict inflation will end the year at 2.4 percent — in line with previous estimates — and won’t hit the Fed’s 2 percent target until 2026.

Central bankers also slightly revised estimates for rates over the medium term, signaling borrowing costs will be slightly higher in 2025 and 2026 than previously anticipated. (Those forecasts are nonbinding, and policymakers often stress that they could change for myriad factors.)

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell will appear at a news conference at 2:30 p.m. Eastern. He’s expected to get questions on his outlook for the economy, the timing of future cuts and whether he thinks inflation is becoming stickier during the last mile of the Fed’s fight.

Powell will also probably shed light on any discussions around the Fed’s vast balance sheet. Officials were expected to look more closely at the pace they are reducing more than $7 trillion in government bond holdings the central bank owns. While lowering the balance sheet is intended to raise yields on longer-term bonds, such moves can cause cracks in the markets and destabilize the financial system if not handled carefully. A decision on whether to change things up could come at subsequent meetings.

After six months of encouraging inflation reports, 2024 has brought unwelcome surprises. First, inflation came in hotter than expected in January. Economists and policymakers were quick to call the report a one-off, saying seasonal glitches and other data quirks often mess with the start of the year. But then February data ticked up slightly, too.

By the time central bankers convened for their two-day meeting this week, they didn’t have a comprehensive picture of whether the past few months have amounted to predictable bumps in the road or the beginning of a more worrisome trend. If officials become convinced that inflation is becoming more persistent or rising yet again, they’d be likelier to leave interest rates higher for longer and not cut them as soon in the future.

Meanwhile, the economy has stayed remarkably strong despite the Fed’s push to slow it down. The job market is still churning, and growth continues at a solid pace. For some officials, that has tempered the desire for cuts, because the economy is clearly forging ahead, and recession fears have faded away.

High prices — especially for basics, such as groceries and rent — continue to be one of the key reasons Americans don’t feel optimistic about the economy, posing a challenge to the Biden administration ahead of November’s presidential election.

The Federal Reserve is loath to get involved in politics, and Powell routinely declines to comment on anything election-related. But as the months pass, the odds grow that the Fed triggers its first cut in the run-up to Election Day, just as Republicans and Democrats try to leverage the economy in their appeals to voters.

An interest rate hike will affect anyone with a home mortgage, car loan, savings account or money in the stock market. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

Over the past few years, the Fed has gone through multiple stages of its inflation fight. First, officials were late to respond to rising prices in early 2021, betting that the sudden pop was a temporary bug of pandemic recovery. But as it became clear that that message was increasingly out of step with Americans’ daily experiences, the central bank scrambled to hoist rates starting in March 2022.

By that summer, inflation would reach a 40-year peak, due in part to spiking energy costs after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Bungled supply chains and labor shortages also pushed prices up on things such as used cars and new clothes.

The Fed pressed on with its aggressive rate hike campaign throughout 2022 and much of 2023, stopping only in July once officials decided that rates were high enough to meaningfully slow the economy. From there, policymakers planned to hold rates high so steep costs for mortgages, car loans and all sorts of business investments could keep pressure on the economy.

Now, Fed leaders are in yet another phase. Inflation has come down considerably, clocking in at 2.4 percent in January over the year before, not far above the central bank’s target of 2 percent using the Fed’s preferred metric.

They’re in no rush to cut rates. But high rates could, in time, bring risks of their own and end up hurting the job market or slowing growth too much.

“We’re waiting to become more confident that inflation is moving sustainably at 2 percent,” Powell told lawmakers during congressional testimony this month. “When we do get that confidence, and we’re not far from it, it’ll be appropriate to begin to dial back the level of restriction so that we don’t, you know, drive the economy into recession.”

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