Fed keeps interest rates on hold amid 'favourable' economic outlook

Reuters WASHINGTON | Updated on December 12, 2019

The US Federal Reserve on Wednesday held interest rates steady and signaled borrowing costs are likely to remain unchanged indefinitely, with moderate economic growth and low unemployment expected to continue through next year's presidential election.

“Our economic outlook remains a favourable one, despite global developments and ongoing risks,” Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in a news conference following the US central bank's decision to leave its benchmark overnight lending rate in its current target range between 1.50 per cent and 1.75 per cent. “We believe monetary policy is well-positioned to serve the American people by supporting continued economic growth, a strong job market and inflation near our 2 per cent goal,” Powell said.

New economic projections released by the Fed showed a solid majority of 13 of 17 policy makers foresee no change in interest rates until at least 2021. The other four saw a single rate hike next year, a view at odds with investors' expectations for a single rate cut.

Notably, no policy makers suggested lower rates would be appropriate next year, a sign the Fed feels it has engineered a “soft landing” after a volatile year in which recession risks rose, the US bond yield curve inverted, and trade policy disrupted markets. Still, the Fed noted, global risks warrant monitoring in the midst of an ongoing US-China trade war, and inflation remains muted.

And given that inflation is lower than the Fed wants despite unemployment near a 50-year low, the handful of policy makers expecting higher rates may find it a hard sell.

Overall, policy makers see the unemployment rate, currently 3.5 per cent, staying below their estimate of a sustainable level in the long run for another three years, even as most expect inflation by then to end up at, or just a little above, the 2 per cent target, the new projections showed.

“I think we’ve learned that unemployment can remain at quite low levels for an extended period of time without unwarranted upward pressure on inflation,” Powell said.

Compared to the 1990s, he said, when the Fed cut rates as an insurance policy against a recession and then raised them again to prevent a tight labour market from fuelling unwanted price rises, today “the need for rate increases is less.”

Indeed, the projections also showed policy makers as a group expect interest rates to remain accommodative - that is, below the 2.5 per cent they estimate neither stimulates nor restricts economic growth - through at least 2022.

US stocks rallied modestly after the decision, which had been widely anticipated by investors. The benchmark S&P 500 index, which was largely flat when the Fed announced its policy decision, closed up about 0.3 per cent.

Yields on US Treasury securities fell in afternoon trading, with the 10-year note last yielding 1.79 per cent. The dollar slid to a four-month low against a basket of major trading partner currencies. There were no dissents to the policy statement, the first without opposition since the April 30-May 1 meeting.

Material change

After the Fed's October policy meeting, Powell said it would take a “material” change in the economic outlook for the central bank to change rates again, language he repeated on Wednesday, but didn't elaborate on. The Fed cut rates three times this year, including in October, “strong measures” that Powell said will take some time to fully show up in the economy.

“It's 'steady as she goes' from the Fed today the statement provided little groundbreaking news on the path of monetary policy,” Jason Pride, chief investment officer of private wealth at Glenmede Trust Co, said in a statement.

“The prevailing message out of today's meeting is that the Fed remains on hold, barring any material upside surprises for inflation,” Pride said.

The quarterly economic projections released on Wednesday showed little change from those in September, as policy makers sketched out an economy they feel has skirted recession risks and is poised to grow close to trend for several years more.

A reference in the October policy statement to “uncertainties” about the economic outlook was dropped on Wednesday. US gross domestic product at the median is projected to grow 2 per cent next year and 1.9 per cent in 2021.

Unemployment is seen staying at its current level of 3.5 per cent through next year, rising to 3.6 per cent in 2021. In a demonstration of the disconnect between that low level of unemployment and inflation, the pace of prices increases is expected to rise only to 1.9 per cent next year.

The economy will be a central issue in US President Donald Trump's re-election campaign against a Democratic challenger likely to call for different economic policies. Trump repeatedly criticized the Fed this year for not cutting rates faster and deeper.

The Fed's forecasts offered little obvious fodder for either of the major political parties, with the economy largely seen performing as it has - far short of the 3 per cent annual growth Trump promised to produce, but also with historically low rates of unemployment.

Published on December 12, 2019

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