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Fed Holds Rates Steady, Cools Expectations for Imminent Cuts

Economy
0 min read

The Federal Reserve left interest rates unchanged on Wednesday following its January policy meeting, keeping the federal funds rate target range at 5.25-5.50%, the highest level since 2007. The decision came as expected, but Fed Chair Jerome Powell pushed back on market bets of rate cuts potentially starting as soon as March.

In the post-meeting statement, the Fed removed language about needing additional policy tightening, signaling a likely prolonged pause in rate hikes as it assesses the impact of its aggressive actions over the past year. However, officials emphasized they do not foresee cuts on the horizon until inflation shows “greater progress” moving back to the 2% goal sustainably.

Powell Caution on Rate Cuts

During his press conference, Powell aimed to temper expectations that rate cuts could begin in just a couple months. He stated March is “probably not the most likely case” for the start of easing, rather the “base case” is the Fed holds rates steady for an extended period to confirm inflation is solidly on a downward trajectory.

Markets have been pricing in rate cuts in 2024 based on recent data showing inflation cooling from 40-year highs last year. But the Fed wants to avoid undoing its progress prematurely. Powell said the central bank would need more consistent evidence on inflation, not just a few months of decent data.

Still Room for Soft Landing

The tone indicates the Fed believes there is room for a soft landing where inflation declines closer to target without triggering a recession. Powell cited solid economic growth, a strong job market near 50-year low unemployment, and six straight months of easing price pressures.

While risks remain, the Fed views risks to its dual mandate as balancing out rather than tilted to the downside. As long as the labor market and consumer spending hold up, a hard landing with severe growth contraction may be avoided.

Markets Catching Up to Fed’s Thinking

Markets initially expected interest rate cuts to start in early 2024 after the Fed’s blistering pace of hikes over the past year. But officials have been consistent that they need to keep policy restrictive for some time to ensure inflation’s retreat is lasting.

After the latest guidance reiterating this view, traders adjusted expectations for the timing of cuts. Futures now show around a coin flip chance of a small 25 basis point rate cut at the March FOMC meeting, compared to up to a 70% chance priced in earlier.

Overall the Fed is making clear that investors are too optimistic on the imminence of policy easing. The bar to cutting rates remains high while the economy expands moderately and inflation readings continue improving.

Normalizing Policy Ahead

Looking beyond immediate rate moves, the Fed is focused on plotting a course back to more normal policy over time. This likely entails holding rates around the current elevated range for much of 2024 to solidify inflation’s descent.

Then later this year or early 2025, the beginnings of rate cuts could materialize if justified by the data. The dot plot forecast shows Fed officials pencil in taking rates down to 4.5-4.75% by year’s end.

But Powell was adamant that lowering rates is not yet on the table. The Fed will need a lengthy period of inflation at or very close to its 2% goal before definitively shifting to an easing cycle.

In the meantime, officials are content to pause after their historic tightening campaign while still keeping rates restrictive enough to maintain control over prices. As Powell made clear, investors anxiously awaiting rate cuts will likely need to keep waiting a bit longer.

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