WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve will signal Wednesday when and how fast it plans to raise interest rates to help tame inflation that is squeezing family budgets.
Stock prices have fallen since the start of the year, partly in anticipation of Fed rate hikes, which would make borrowing more expensive and potentially slow the economy and reduce corporate profits.
The Fed releases its latest policy statement at 2 p.m. Eastern, followed by a press conference with Fed Chair Jerome Powell, whose words will be parsed for any hints about how aggressively the central bank will move to head off inflation, which is at a 40-year high and poses political risks for President Joe Biden.
The Fed’s benchmark interest rate has been pegged near zero since the pandemic erupted in March 2020 and triggered a recession. The Fed is expected to raise this rate in March by a quarter point to a range of 0.25% to 0.5%, and economists expect several more rate hikes later in the year.
To further tighten credit, the Fed also plans to end its monthly bond purchases in March. And later this year, it may start reducing its huge stockpile of Treasury and mortgage bonds. Taken together, these moves represent a dramatic reversal from the ultra-low-rate policies the Fed imposed during the pandemic recession.
The Fed’s moves are likely to make a wide range of borrowing - from mortgages and credit cards to auto loans and corporate credit - more expensive. Those higher borrowing costs, in turn, could slow consumer spending. The gravest risk is that the Fed’s abandonment of low rates, which have nurtured the economy and the financial markets for years, could trigger another recession.
Ahead of Wednesday’s updated policy statement from the Fed, the S&P 500 index rose 1.6%. After closing at an all-time high on Jan. 3, the benchmark index has fallen 7.7%, nearing a 10% decline that investors define as a “correction.”
If the stock market is engulfed by more chaotic declines, economists say, the Fed might decide to delay some of its credit-tightening plans. Modest drops in share prices, though, won’t likely affect its plans.
“The Fed does not at all mind seeing a repricing of risk here but would want to see it in an orderly fashion,” said Ellen Gaske, lead economist at PGIM Fixed Income, a global asset manager.
Investors fear there may be still more to come, which partly explains the wild volatility in stock markets this week. Some on Wall Street worry that the Fed may signal a forthcoming half-point increase in its key rate. There is also concern that, at his news conference, Powell could suggest that the central bank will raise rates more times this year than the four hikes most economists expect.
Another wild card - particularly for Wall Street - is the Fed’s bond holdings. As recently as September, those holdings were growing by $120 billion a month. The bond purchases, which the Fed financed by creating money, were intended to reduce longer-term rates to spur borrowing and spending. Many investors saw the bond buying as helping fuel stock market gains by pouring cash into the financial system.
Earlier this month, minutes of the Fed’s December meeting revealed that the central bank was considering reducing its bond holdings by not replacing bonds that mature - a more aggressive step than just ending the purchases. Analysts now forecast that the Fed could begin shrinking its holding as early as July, much sooner than was expected even a few months ago.
The impact of reducing the Fed’s bond stockpile isn’t well known. But the last time the Fed raised rates and reduced its balance sheet simultaneously was in 2018. The S&P 500 stock index tumbled 20% in three months.
Yet some analysts say they aren’t sure how big the impact on interest rates will be or how much the Fed will rely on reducing its balance sheet to affect interest rates.
“There is a fair bit of uncertainty about what to expect,” said Michael Hanson, global economist at JPMorgan Chase.
Powell will face a delicate and even risky balancing act at his news conference Wednesday.
“It’s a threading-the-needle story,” Goldberg said. “They want to continue to sound hawkish - just not so hawkish as to create extreme market volatility.”
Some economists have expressed concern that the Fed is already moving too late to combat high inflation. Others say they worry that the Fed may act too aggressively. They argue that numerous rate hikes would risk causing a recession and wouldn’t slow inflation in any case. In this view, high prices mostly reflect snarled supply chains that the Fed’s rate hikes are powerless to cure.
This week’s Fed meeting comes against the backdrop of not only high inflation - consumer prices have surged 7% in the past year, the fastest pace in nearly four decades - but also an economy gripped by another wave of COVID-19 infections.
Powell has acknowledged that he failed to foresee the persistence of high inflation, having long expressed the belief that it would prove temporary. The inflation spike has broadened to areas beyond those that were affected by supply shortages - to apartment rents, for example - which suggests it could endure even after goods and parts flow more freely.
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