Federal Reserve officials raised interest rates to their highest level in 22 years, continuing their 16-month campaign to wrestle inflation lower by cooling the American economy even as they left the door open to further action if inflation showed signs of proving stubborn.
Officials pushed rates to a range of 5.25 to 5.5 percent, their highest level since 2001, in a unanimous decision.
Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, suggested in a news conference following the decision that while the “pieces of the puzzle” that could allow inflation to sustainably slow down are beginning to come together, policy had not been restrictive enough for long enough — and that the Fed was “prepared to further tighten” if necessary.
The Fed chief carefully kept the central bank’s options open at an uncertain economic juncture, one that offers reasons for both optimism and caution.
Fed policymakers began to raise rates from near-zero in March 2022 and pushed them up rapidly last year before adjusting them more slowly in 2023, even taking a break last month. Because officials think that rates are now high enough to weigh on the economy, they have been moving more gradually to give themselves time to see how growth, the job market and inflation data are responding to the shift in policy.
Mr. Powell said officials would be watching incoming data ahead of the Fed’s Sept. 20 meeting to decide whether they need to raise interest rates further at that gathering. But he avoided explaining what precisely would prompt the Fed to either lift rates or hold them steady, noting that the Fed has eight weeks and a substantial amount of incoming data before it has to decide.
“We’ve come a long way,” Mr. Powell said at one point. “Inflation repeatedly has proved stronger than we and other forecasters have expected — and at some point that may change. We have to be ready to follow the data and given how far we’ve come, we can afford to be a little patient as well as resolute as we let this unfold.”
Higher interest rates cool the economy by making it more expensive to borrow money, discouraging business expansions and making it more expensive to take out a mortgage or a car loan. But it takes time for them to trickle through the economy, so the full effects of the moves so far most likely have not been fully felt. That makes it tough to gauge how high is sufficiently high. Policymakers want to make sure that they temper demand enough to put an end to rapid price increases, but they would prefer to avoid plunging the economy into a recession if they can avoid it.
“We’ve covered a lot of ground, and the full effects of our tightening have yet to be felt,” Mr. Powell acknowledged Wednesday, adding that the process of cooling inflation still has “a long way to go.”
After fluctuating higher and lower as Powell spoke, stocks across all three major indexes — the S&P 500, the Nasdaq Composite and the Dow — ended the day close to where they started. The S&P and Nasdaq posted modest losses. The Dow moved 0.2 percent higher to record its longest streak of daily gains since the 1980s.
Economists have recently become increasingly hopeful that the Fed might be able to slow inflation without causing an outright economic downturn, clinching what is often called a soft landing. Inflation has finally begun to subside notably at a time when hiring remains strong and the unemployment rate is hovering at very low levels. In a nod to that resilience, officials noted on Wednesday that the economy was expanding at a “moderate” pace, an upgrade from “modest” in their June statement.
And the Fed’s influential staff economists — who help inform policymakers as they assess the outlook — no longer think America will fall into a recession late this year, Mr. Powell said. They previously had forecast a mild one.
But Fed officials may not feel comfortable that inflation will return to their 2 percent goal at a time when growth remains so robust. If consumer spending continues to chug along, companies may still have the wherewithal to raise prices without losing customers. Although the slowdown in inflation so far is welcome news, it has been driven primarily not by their policy changes, but by a slow return to normal after years of pandemic-related disruptions across a range of products, from cars to couches.
“We think we need some further softening in labor market conditions,” Mr. Powell said on Wednesday, noting that while that might hurt, high inflation would also harm the most vulnerable people in the economy.
“We have a job assigned to us by Congress to get inflation under control,” he said, later adding, “We need to get this done.”
That is why policymakers are keeping alive the possibility that they could continue raising interest rates.
The Fed projected in June that it would make two more rate increases this year — the one it ushered in on Wednesday, and a follow-up at some point in the future. While investors and some economists have speculated that officials may hold off on that second rate move in light of the recent slowdown in inflation, Mr. Powell made clear that a further increase remained entirely possible.
At the same time, Mr. Powell and his fellow policymakers have little reason to signal clearly what comes next. No policy meeting is held in August, though Mr. Powell often speaks at a closely watched Fed conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo., late in the month.
Fed officials will not release a fresh set of quarterly economic projections until their meeting on Sept. 20. And if they choose to skip raising rates at that meeting — keeping up an every-other-meeting pattern that they started in June — that would make Nov. 1 the next meeting before policymakers must make a big rate decision.
“We will continue to make our decisions meeting by meeting,” Mr. Powell said on Wednesday.
“We haven’t made any decisions about any future meetings,” he added.
Other Fed officials — including Mary C. Daly, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco — had previously said that they wanted to keep their options open for now. Christopher J. Waller, a Fed governor, suggested this month that he would favor moving rates up in September if inflation was looking hot, but could be open to holding off if price increases continued to cool.
“The September meeting is a ‘live’ meeting and it depends on the data,” Mr. Waller said at an event in New York after the latest Consumer Price Index inflation report showed a notable slowdown. “We’ll get two more C.P.I. reports. If they look like the last two, the data would suggest maybe stopping.”
Jeanna Smialek writes about the Federal Reserve and the economy for The Times. She previously covered economics at Bloomberg News. More about Jeanna Smialek
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