WASHINGTON – The Federal Reserve is set Wednesday to leave its key short-term interest rate alone and to signal that it will remain cautious this year about raising rates further.
Chairman Jerome Powell will begin a new era of communications by holding a news conference after each of the Fed’s eight meetings every year, up from four news conferences a year. The move will give the chairman the flexibility to explain any policy changes the Fed makes. Until now, it was widely assumed that the central bank would take no major actions at any meeting that didn’t coincide with a news conference.
Powell could shed further light on the Fed’s views of the pressures on the U.S. economy – from a global slowdown and a trade war with China to slowing corporate earnings and a nervous stock market.
Here are three things to watch for after the Fed meeting ends Wednesday afternoon:
Pace of rate hikes
The Fed raised rates four times in 2018, leaving its benchmark rate in a range of 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent. When it last met in December, the central bank issued a projection that it expected to raise rates twice in 2019, down from its previous projection of three times.
Yet financial markets tumbled afterward, upset that in his news conference, Powell had sketched a rosy view of the economy and appeared to suggest that the Fed would likely resume raising rates in the coming months. The chairman’s comments were seen as failing to provide a clear signal that the Fed was prepared to hit the pause button on rate hikes in the face of rising global economic pressures.
Since then, though, Powell and other Fed officials have emphasized their desire to be “patient” in their approach to rate hikes and their belief that there’s no “pre-set course” for future increases.
Some Fed watchers have suggested that the central bank may add the word “patient” to the policy statement it will issue after its meeting ends – and, even if the word doesn’t appear there, that Powell will stress it in his news conference.
Traders in futures markets have put the probability of a rate hike at any time this year at just 22 percent, according to data tracked by the CME Group. Some analysts, though, are predicting up to two Fed rate increases in 2019, though not until the second half of the year.
Threats to growth
The economy was already expected to slow this year, given the belief by economists that the boost from President Donald Trump’s tax cuts and billions in extra government spending would start to fade this year. Yet concerns have arisen that the slowdown could be even more pronounced given the emergence of new risks. They include weakening global growth, slowing corporate earnings, lingering effects of the 35-day partial government shutdown and the trade war between the United States and China, the world’s two biggest economies.
Powell will likely be asked about all these threats, and investors will gauge his responses to try to assess how concerned the Fed is.
The Fed chairman may also face questions about his relationship with Trump. Last year, when the stock market was nosediving, the president complained often about the Fed’s string of rate hikes. Trump argued that the rate increases were unnecessary given that inflation was mild and that the Fed might tighten credit so much as to cause a recession.
Asked earlier this month if he would resign if Trump asked him to, Powell responded with a terse no. But reporters may ask whether Powell is concerned that markets fear that outside pressure could influence the Fed’s actions.
Trump will have the opportunity this year to fill two vacancies on the Fed’s seven-member board. Last week, Larry Kudlow, head of the president’s National Economic Council, said the administration “wants highly capable, competent people who understand that you can have strong economic growth without higher inflation.”
The stock market has halted its late-year slide and has staged a solid rebound this month. But one development that investors had worried about hasn’t been resolved: the Fed’s approach to shrinking its enormous portfolio of Treasury and mortgage bonds. Its portfolio reflects purchases the Fed made after the 2008 financial crisis to help keep borrowing rates down and stimulate the economy.
The purchases swelled the Fed’s balance sheet to $4.5 trillion – several times where it had been before the crisis. But as the economy recovered and no longer needed heavy support from the Fed, the central bank in October 2017 began allowing those bond holdings to roll off its balance sheet by not reinvesting the bonds when they mature. The balance sheet is now around $4 trillion.
The Fed, though, hasn’t said what it thinks is an appropriate level for the balance sheet other than suggesting it should be larger than the near $1 trillion level that existed before the financial crisis hit in 2008.
Reports have emerged, though, that the Fed is nearing a decision on an appropriate size for the balance sheet and on when to end its gradual reduction. Some analysts say that level could be around $3.5 trillion, which would exceed previous estimates of $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion.
If the Fed chooses to reduce its holdings less than many expect, that would likely result in lower long-term rates. This would be good news for corporations that need to borrow for investments and for homeowners seeking home and auto loans.
On this topic, Powell may be prepared to provide further guidance after the Fed meeting ends Wednesday.
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