Here’s why the Fed’s next big rate hike may be its last
The Federal Reserve is on track to issue another massive rate hike Wednesday before slowing down the pace of its battle to fight inflation.
Analysts and economists are confident the Fed will hike its baseline interest rate range by another 0.75 percentage points at the end of a Wednesday meeting. The Fed’s move will mark the fourth consecutive rate hike of a size it once considered “unusually large.”
It may also mark a turning point as the Fed faces growing pressure to take its foot off the brakes of the economy.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell is not expected to announce a pause to rate hikes or the bank’s intentions for its final policy meeting in December. But Fedwatchers will be paying close attention for signs that Fed officials believe they may be close to the level they plan to set interest rates for the foreseeable future.
“We see a decent chance that core inflation and wage growth will slow at the same time, more or less, making it much more likely that the Fed’s final hike will be in December,” wrote Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, in a Monday research note.
The Fed’s rate hikes have caused a steep decline in home sales and the first steady price declines in more than a decade as buyers balk at rising mortgage rates. Wage growth has slowed as businesses curb their hiring ambitions, and firms have pulled back on long-term investments that could drive future growth.
“We see enough straws in the wind now to think that the economy is at a real inflexion point,” Shepherdson wrote.
Even so, inflation has remained stubbornly high, and Powell has warned that the bank will keep up the pressure until price growth shows clear signs of falling.
“These forces are not yet fully visible in the hard data which matter most to markets and the Fed,” Shepherdson continued.
Prices were up 6.2 percent over the past year, as measured by the personal consumption expenditures price index, the Fed’s preferred gauge of inflation. It remains well above the Fed’s target for 2 percent annual inflation.
The consumer price index (CPI), another key gauge of inflation, was up 8.2 percent on the year in September. While the CPI is not the Fed’s primary inflation gauge, the bank still pays close attention to it.
“While the headline Consumer Price Index (CPI) has fallen from the 40 year record of 9.1% set in June to September’s 8.2%, that’s still appallingly high,” wrote Dan North, senior economist at Allianz Trade, in a Monday research note.
“The Fed’s super aggressive path is justified since inflation, which it caused, has not been killed yet. But by the time it is, the Fed will have driven the economy into recession,” he continued.
The Fed has faced a difficult balance since it began hiking interest rates in March: ramp up rates slowly and risk losing the ability to control inflation or raise them quickly at the risk of bringing the economy to a screeching halt.
Fed officials have decisively chosen the latter, insisting a recession caused by high interest rates would be less damaging than one caused by its refusal to bring inflation down.
“We think that a failure to restore price stability would mean far greater pain later on,” Powell said after the Fed hiked rates in September.
“The record shows that if you postpone, that delay is only likely to lead to more pain,” he continued, referring to the grueling recession the Fed triggered to bring inflation down from much higher levels during the 1980s.
The bank is also facing more pressure to prove it can curb inflation after refusing to hike rates in 2021 while price growth accelerated, insisting it would come back down soon enough.
“Committing to slowing down prematurely without seeing meaningful progress on inflation could result in another challenge to the Fed’s credibility if inflation surprises to the upside and [Fed officials] are compelled to backtrack,” wrote economists at investment bank Nomura in a Monday research note.
“We believe the Fed will want clear and compelling evidence that inflation has indeed made progress before they commit to slowing the pace of rate hikes,” they added.