The Federal Reserve pumped up its benchmark interest rate Wednesday by three-quarters of a point for a fourth straight time but hinted that it could soon reduce the size of its rate hikes.
The Fed’s move raised its key short-term rate to a range of 3.75% to 4%, its highest level in 15 years. It was the central bank’s sixth rate hike this year — a streak that has made mortgages and other consumer and business loans increasingly expensive and heightened the risk of a recession.
The persistence of inflated prices and higher borrowing costs has undercut the ability of Democrats to campaign on the robust health of the job market as they try to maintain control of Congress. Republican candidates have hammered Democrats on the punishing impact of inflation in the run-up to the midterm elections that will end Tuesday.
The Fed’s statement Wednesday was released after its latest policy meeting. Many economists expect Chair Jerome Powell to signal at a news conference that the Fed’s next expected rate hike in December may be only a half-point rather than three-quarters.
Typically, the Fed raises rates in quarter-point increments. But after having miscalculated in downplaying inflation last year as likely transitory, Powell has led the Fed to raise rates aggressively to try to slow borrowing and spending and ease price pressures.
Wednesday’s latest rate increase coincided with growing concerns that the Fed may tighten credit so much as to derail the economy. The government has reported that the economy grew last quarter, and employers are still hiring at a solid pace. But the housing market has cratered, and consumers are barely increasing their spending.
Even at that more moderate pace, the central bank's benchmark, or target, rate would reach 4.75% to 5%, which would be its highest range since 2007, up from the current 3% to 3.25%. Fed officials have stressed that they need to sharply raise rates to tame inflation, which reached 8.2% in September from 12 months earlier, barely below a 40-year high. Chronic inflation has also become a central point of attack for Republicans against Democrats in the midterm congressional elections.
The Fed's five aggressive rate hikes this year have sent borrowing rates surging across the economy and heightened the risk of a recession. The home market, in particular, has been badly bruised as a consequence. The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage, just 3.14% a year ago, surpassed 7% last week, mortgage buyer Freddie Mac reported. Sales of existing homes have dropped for eight straight months.
One reason the Fed's policymakers might feel they can soon slow the pace of their rate hikes is that some early signs suggest that inflation could start declining in 2023. Consumer spending, squeezed by high prices and costlier loans, is barely growing. Supply chain snarls are easing, which means fewer shortages of goods and parts. Wage growth is plateauing, which, if followed by declines, would reduce inflationary pressures.
Still, the job market remains consistently strong, which could make it harder for the Fed to cool the economy and curb inflation. On Tuesday, the government reported that companies posted more job openings in September than in August. There are now 1.9 available jobs for each unemployed worker, an unusually large supply.
A ratio that high means that employers will likely continue to raise pay to attract and keep workers. Those higher labor costs are often passed on to customers in the form of higher prices, thereby fueling more inflation.
If Powell does signal Wednesday that the Fed may lift its foot slightly off the economic brakes, it could spark a rally in stock and bond prices. Such higher asset prices, though, might then fuel more spending just when the Fed wants to cool things down to throttle inflation.
To offset any potential burst of optimism, the Fed may signal at its next meeting in December that it expects to add at least another rate hike early next year. That would serve to make borrowing even more expensive and would further heighten the risk of a recession.
5% POSSIBLE KEY RATE AT GOLDMAN
Ultimately, economists at Goldman Sachs expect the Fed's policymakers to raise their key rate to nearly 5% by March. That is above what the Fed itself had projected in its previous set of forecasts in September.
For now, many Fed officials have said they see few signs that inflation is easing in any sustainable way. They point, in particular, to so-called core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy costs and is considered a good reflection of underlying price pressures.
“We need to see actual progress in core inflation and services inflation," Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said recently. “And we are not seeing it yet.”
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