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Friday, May 24, 2024

Fed Holds Rates Steady Due to Inflation’s Weight on Policy

U.S. central bank officials will conclude their latest two-day policy meeting on Wednesday with a new statement and comments from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell that could give a clearer sense of how recent disappointing inflation readings have changed the expectation for interest rate cuts this year.

The Fed is almost certain to hold its benchmark overnight interest rate steady, with investors placing nearly a 100% probability on that outcome and no support for any changes to the policy rate offered by officials ahead of the meeting.

But a new policy statement issued at 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) and Powell’s press conference half an hour later should provide insight into how deeply – if at all – a stretch of three lost months in the inflation battle has affected the likelihood that borrowing costs will fall any time soon.

Fed policymakers will not be updating their quarterly economic projections at this week’s meeting, so any fresh guidance rests on the statement and Powell’s press conference.

The Fed made significant headway in lowering inflation back to its 2% target after it had surged to a 40-year high in 2022.
But progress has stalled this year, and even threatened to reverse, pushing central bank officials to downplay when rate cuts might begin.
As the latest Fed meeting began on Tuesday, two sets of data further undermined the outlook.

The Employment Cost Index (ECI), an important measure of labor market conditions because it is measured quarterly and accounts for changes in the mix of occupations, rose at a 4.2% rate on a year-over-year basis in the first quarter, matching the rise in the fourth quarter and above what’s considered consistent with the Fed’s inflation target.

Two national measures of home prices also showed unexpected strength, a blow to longstanding Fed hopes that shelter inflation would ease and help lower the headline inflation rate.

“Recent data has not been what the Fed is looking for,” said Tuan Nguyen, a U.S. economist at RSM, with the ECI in particular perhaps steering policymakers towards a more hawkish view of recent data they still hope will prove a bump on the way to lower inflation as opposed to a sign that progress is stalling.

Investors in contracts tied to the Fed’s policy rate responded to the data by further pushing out their expectations of when it might fall, according to data from CME Group’s FedWatch Tool, with an initial quarter-percentage-point reduction at the central bank’s Sept. 17-18 meeting given about even odds as of Tuesday.

The likelihood that the benchmark rate won’t be cut at all from the current 5.25%-5.50% range this year was roughly one in four – up from close to zero as of early April.

The Fed last raised rates in July, and while officials have said they’d be unlikely to hike again, Powell’s assessment of that issue at his press conference will be important – even if it is only to restate that the expectation is to simply leave the current policy rate in place for longer than anticipated.

“The recent data have clearly not given us greater confidence and instead indicate that it’s likely to take longer than expected to achieve that confidence” and proceed with rate cuts, Powell said on April 16 in what were his last public comments before this week’s meeting. “Right now, given the strength of the labor market and progress on inflation so far, it’s appropriate to allow restrictive policy further time to work.”

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