Federal Reserve Still Foresees 3 Rate Cuts This Year but Envisions Higher Rates in Future

Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell speaks during a news conference the Federal Reserve in Washington, Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal Reserve officials signaled Wednesday that they still expect to cut their key interest rate three times in 2024 despite signs that inflation stayed surprisingly high at the start of the year. Yet they foresee fewer rate cuts in 2025, and they slightly raised their inflation forecasts.

After ending their latest meeting, the officials kept their benchmark interest rate unchanged for a fifth straight time.

In new quarterly projections they issued, the Fed officials forecast that stronger growth and stubborn inflation would persist this year and next. As a result, they predicted that interest rates would have to stay slightly higher for longer.

Speaking at a news conference, Chair Jerome Powell noted that inflation has cooled considerably from its peak. But, he added, “inflation is still too high, ongoing progress in bringing it down is not assured and the path forward is uncertain.”

The policymakers now foresee three rate cuts in 2025, down from four in their December projections. Rate cuts would, over time, lead to lower costs for home and auto loans, credit card borrowing and business loans. They might also aid President Joe Biden’s re-election bid, which is facing widespread public unhappiness over higher prices and could benefit from an economic jolt stemming from lower borrowing rates.

The Fed’s policymakers also expect “core” inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy costs, to still be 2.6% by the end of 2024, up from their previous projection of 2.4%. In January, core inflation was 2.8%, according to the Fed’s preferred measure.

Most economists have pegged the Fed’s June meeting as the most likely time for it to announce its first rate cut, which would begin to reverse the 11 hikes it imposed beginning two years ago. The Fed’s hikes have helped lower annual inflation from a peak of 9.1% in June 2022 to 3.2%. But they have also made borrowing much costlier for businesses and households.

Two recent government reports pointed to higher-than-expected inflation. One showed that consumer prices jumped from January to February by much more than is consistent with the Fed’s target. The second showed that wholesale inflation came in surprisingly high — a possible sign of inflation pressures in the pipeline that could cause consumer price increases to remain elevated.

Powell and the 18 other officials on the Fed’s interest-rate-setting committee have been considering how — or whether — those figures should affect their timetable for cutting rates. The central question is whether they have kept rates high enough for long enough to fully tame inflation.

Though consumer inflation has tumbled since mid-2022, it has remained stuck above 3%. And in the first two months of 2024, the costs of services, like rents, hotels and hospital stays, remained elevated. That suggested that high borrowing rates weren’t sufficiently slowing inflation in the economy’s vast service sector.

While the Fed’s rate hikes typically make borrowing more expensive for homes, cars, appliances and other costly goods, they have much less effect on services spending, which doesn’t usually involve loans. With the economy still healthy, there is no compelling reason for the Fed to cut rates until it feels inflation is sustainably under control.

At the same time, the central bank faces a competing concern: If it waits too long to cut rates, a long period of high borrowing costs could seriously weaken the economy and even tip it into a recession.

Powell warned of such an outcome when he testified to the Senate Banking Committee this month. He said the Fed was becoming more confident that inflation is continuing to slow, even if not in a straight line.

There are signs that the economy could weaken in the coming months. Americans slowed their spending at retailers in January and February, for example. The unemployment rate has reached 3.9% — still a healthy level, but up from a half-century low last year of 3.4%. And much of the hiring in recent months has occurred in government, health care and private education, with many other industries barely adding any jobs.

To Read The Full Story

Are you already a subscriber?
Click to log in!