US Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell holds a news conference after Federal Reserve raised its target interest rate by three-quarters of a percentage point in Washington, September 21, 2022.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
Call it a sign of the times where a half percentage point interest rate increase from the Federal Reserve is considered looser monetary policy.
Prior to this year, the Fed hadn’t boosted benchmark borrowing rates by more than a quarter-point at a time in 22 years. In 2022, they’ve done it four times — three-quarters of a point each — with Wednesday’s widely anticipated 0.5 percentage point move to be the fifth.
A pitched battle against inflation has turned policy norms on their head. Investors have now become conditioned to an aggressive central bank, so any step down from the recent jumbo moves will be seen as relative easing.
Wednesday’s meeting of the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee will bring an assortment of moves to chew on. It will be as much about the current rate increase as it will what the Fed plans ahead and where it sees the economy heading.
Here’s a quick look at the multiple variables that will play into the outcome:
Particularly in light of Tuesday’s softer-than-expected consumer price index inflation report, it would be a shock if the FOMC does anything other than raises the fed funds rate a half point, taking the overnight borrowing benchmark to a targeted range of 4.25%- 4.5%, the highest level in 15 years.
While the committee vote is likely to be unanimous or close to it, not everyone is on board.
“I’m hoping Jay Powell will stand firm and continue to do what needs to be done,” said former FDIC Chairman William Isaac. “I’m hoping they go up at least a point.”
Then there’s the other side.
“This hiking cycle should be over right now,” wrote Tom Porcelli, chief US economist at RBC Capital Markets. “We have been fond of saying over recent months that the Fed is fighting yesterday’s war on inflation … There is no need at this point to continue hiking rates but, of course, they will.”
Behind that unanimous or near-unanimous vote on rates will be a vigorous debate on where monetary policy should go from here.
That should be reflected in both the post-meeting statement and in Powell’s news conference.
One area where markets are looking for change is in phrasing saying the FOMC “anticipates that ongoing increases in the target range will be appropriate” to something more generic like “some increases” could be needed. That gives the Fed flexibility for its next move, with some in the markets anticipating that February could be the last rate hike for a while. The Fed’s next rate decision after this one is due Feb. 1.
Powell will be looked at to bring clarity to where the committee views the future of its inflation fight. He likely will reiterate that the Fed will raise rates and keep them high until inflation shows concrete signs of coming back to the central bank’s 2% target.
“Traders will be closely monitoring Jay Powell’s Q&A as we seek guidance on February potentially only being a 25 [basis point] increase and what the FOMC’s plan is to get to a higher terminal rate yet over a longer period,” said Victor Masotti, director of repo trading at Clear Street.
The committee will also update its projections on inflation, unemployment and GDP. The inflation and GDP projections for next year could come down and unemployment may get pushed a bit higher.
The ‘dot plot’ and the ‘terminal rate’
That “terminal rate” of which Masotti spoke references the expected end point for the Fed and its current-rate hiking cycle.
When the Fed last updated its dot plot — a chart in which each FOMC member gets an anonymous “dot” to project rate moves over the next few years — the terminal rate was pegged at 4.6%.
With inflation still rising, not withstanding recent reports, the endpoint is likely to grow as well. But perhaps not by as much as market feared.
Goldman Sachs said it’s “a close call between 5-5.25% and a smaller rise to 4.75-5%. We continue to expect three 25bp hikes in 2023. At the margin, [Tuesday’s CPI] report reduces the risk of a 50bp hike in February.”
Signaling a softer approach could be dangerous, said Isaac, who was FDIC chair back in the early 1980s when inflation was raging and then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker had to raise rates dramatically and pull the economy into recession.
“People have to have confidence in the Fed, and that’s what Volcker brought. You knew he meant what he said,” said Isaac, chairman of Secura/Isaac Group, a global advisory firm. “If you don’t have confidence in the government and the Fed in particular, it’s going to be a long, hard slog.”
Finally, Powell will take the stage at 2:30 pm ET for 45 minutes or so to handle questions from the press.
In the past few meetings, the chair has used the session to buttress the Fed’s inflation-fighting credentials, vowing rate hikes until prices are firmly brought back to stable ground.
The market hasn’t always believed him.
Even at times when Powell has used tough rhetoric, traders — and the electronic algorithms that tend to drive short-term market jolts — have chosen to focus on the dovish qualifiers and drove stocks higher. Following a series of relatively positive inflation reports, Powell may have to push a little harder this time.
“He should spare us the over the top hawkish antics,” RBC’s Porcelli said. “Say you are not done yet and there is more to do etc etc. And leave it at that. He may not like the easing in financial conditions of late, but markets have eyes.”