Fed raises rates by a half point as central banks enter new phase

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday raised its benchmark policy rate by half a percentage point and signaled its intention to keep squeezing the US economy next year, as central banks on both sides of the Atlantic enter a new phase in the battle against inflation.

At its final gathering of the year, the Federal Open Market Committee voted unanimously to increase the federal funds rate to a target range of 4.25 percent to 4.5 percent, ending a months-long string of 0.75 percentage point rate rises.

The pivot to smaller rate rises is likely to be followed internationally, with the European Central Bank and the Bank of England both poised to increase borrowing costs by half a percentage point on Thursday.

Economists say that inflation has peaked in all three regions, with reductions in the headline rate in the US and UK this week, but central banks remain worried that it will take too long to fall towards their 2 percent targets.

In a press conference following the decision, Fed Chair Jay Powell said: “We’ve covered a lot of ground and the full effects of our rapid tightening so far are yet to be felt. We have more work to do.”

Powell welcomed the reduction in headline price growth in October and November but warned “it will take substantially more evidence to give confidence that inflation is on a sustained downward path”.

In its statement the Fed said that “ongoing increases” in the policy rate would be “appropriate” in order to ensure it is restraining the economy enough to bring price growth under control.

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Trading was choppy following the statement and Powell’s press conference. The S&P 500 closed 0.6 percent lower and the Nasdaq Composite shed 0.8 percent. The two-year Treasury yield, which moves with interest rate expectations, was flat at 4.2 percent.

Jay Barry, co-head of US rates strategy at JPMorgan, said that ahead of the decision investors had debated whether the Fed would drop the “ongoing increases” language in favor of something more dovish.

Sticking with the phraseology “suggests we’re multiple meetings away from the tightening cycle being done”, Barry added.

Alongside the rate decision, the Fed published a revised “dot plot” of officials’ individual interest rate projections, which indicated support for further tightening next year.

The median estimate for the fed funds rate by the end of 2023 rose to 5.1 percent, up from the 4.6 percent peak forecast the last time projections were published in September. That suggests a total of 0.75 points’ worth of rate rises still to come.

Most officials now see the policy rate declining to 4.1 per cent in 2024 and 3.1 per cent in 2025. That compares to 3.9 per cent and 2.9 per cent, respectively, three months ago.

However, Powell noted that Fed officials had consistently increased their forecasts for peak interest rates and warned: “I can’t tell you confidently that we won’t move up our estimate. . . again.”

A large cohort of policymakers anticipated the policy rate surpassing 5.25 per cent next year, with only two saying it should peak below 5 per cent.

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Asked about the potential for rate cuts next year, as anticipated by traders in fed funds futures, Powell said the Fed is not yet at the point of thinking about easing.

“I wouldn’t see us considering rate cuts until the committee is confident that inflation is moving down to 2% in a sustained way. That’s the test,” he said, adding that the dot plot does not suggest any easing in 2023.

Policymakers increased their forecast for inflation next year, with the median estimate for the core personal consumption expenditures price index — their preferred inflation gauge — rising to 3.5 percent, compared to 3.1 percent in September.

In 2024, most officials anticipate it will have only declined to 2.5 percent, still above the central bank’s target. It is forecast to decline to 2.1 percent the following year.

Policymakers were more downbeat on the outlook. The economy is set to grow by just 0.5 percent in 2023 before registering a 1.6 percent expansion in 2024 as the unemployment rate tops out at 4.6 percent.

In September, most officials predicted economic growth of 1.2 percent for 2023 followed by a 1.7 percent increase in 2024, with the unemployment rate topping out at 4.4 percent.

The December meeting marks an important juncture for the Fed, which this year embarked on the most aggressive attempt to tighten monetary policy since the early 1980s.

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As the central bank’s actions have begun to have a noticeable impact on the economy, a debate has emerged about how much more restraint is needed to tame inflationary pressures that remain elevated in many sectors.

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