What to Watch as the Fed Meets - The World News

What to Watch as the Fed Meets

Federal Reserve officials are expected to leave interest rates unchanged on Wednesday, but investors and economists will be carefully watching for any hints about when policymakers could begin cutting borrowing costs.

Central bankers have held rates at 5.3 percent since July after a rapid series of increases starting in early 2022. Policymakers came into 2024 expecting to lower rates several times, but inflation has proved surprisingly stubborn, delaying those reductions.

At the conclusion of their two-day meeting on Wednesday, Fed officials will release economic projections for the first time since March, updating how many rate cuts they expect this year. Policymakers could predict two reductions before the end of the year, economists think, down from three previously. There is even a small chance that officials could project just one rate cut.

Regardless, central bankers are likely to remain coy about an important question: Just when will they begin lowering borrowing costs? Policymakers are not expected to cut rates in July, which means that they will have several months of data before their next meeting, on Sept. 17-18. Given that, officials are likely to try to keep their options open.

“It will be a message of patience, as simple as that,” said Yelena Shulyatyeva, senior U.S. economist at BNP Paribas. “We want to make sure that inflation is going down, and we will be happy to wait to see that happen.”

That won’t keep investors from watching a postmeeting news conference with Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, for any hint at when rates might finally start to come down — providing relief for would-be borrowers and further pepping up financial markets.

Here’s what to watch at this week’s Fed meeting.

The Fed puts out a statement after each of its eight meetings per year, but it includes fresh projections for inflation, unemployment, growth and interest rates only once every three months. The latest update of that Summary of Economic Projections is set for release at 2 p.m. on Wednesday.

Markets tend to focus most intently on the rate forecasts, which are often called the “dots.” The name comes from the presentation: Policymakers’ forecasts are displayed individually as anonymous circles arrayed on a graph.

The dots will be even more in focus than usual this month, because they are almost sure to move from the last forecast. If just one official reduces his or her projection, the median dot could suggest only two rate cuts by the end of the year, down from the previous three.

As evidence mounts that rates might not come down as much or as quickly as was previously expected, a second big question is opening up. When, exactly, will cuts begin?

Not right away, in all likelihood. With employers hiring, the economy expanding at a decent pace and a lot of uncertainty about how much and how quickly inflation will cool, officials have suggested that the bigger mistake would be cutting borrowing costs too early and then having to reverse course because inflation got stuck.

Many economists think that today’s conditions — inflation that is moderating, if haltingly, paired with a solid economy — will allow for a first rate cut in September. But both forecasters and Wall Street investors also see a substantial chance that the Fed won’t begin to lower borrowing costs until December.

The big uncertainty headed into this meeting is exactly what is happening with inflation.

On one hand, price increases have slowed down a lot from their peak in 2022. The Consumer Price Index topped out at about 9.1 percent that year, but it is now hovering around 3.4 percent. On the other, progress has stalled out in recent months, and inflation remains above the Fed’s 2 percent goal (which it officially defines using a separate but related inflation measure).

Fresh C.P.I. inflation data set for release at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday will give policymakers an up-to-date snapshot of what is happening with prices.

Officials will have a chance to update their economic projections after the release — they can be revised “until the morning of the second day of the meeting,” per Fed rules. While the guidelines don’t specify an exact cutoff time, a Fed spokesperson pointed out that the Fed chair had previously said forecasts could be updated up through midmorning of the final meeting day.

Beyond that, Mr. Powell’s tone could shift somewhat depending on what the latest inflation data show.

For households and for the White House, what the Fed signals at this meeting could matter.

High interest rates are not a popular policy among American voters: They make borrowing to buy a house or a car more expensive, and for people with credit card balances, they can be a crushing expense. They also work to slow the economy and weaken the job market. While the point is to bring down inflation, the path getting there can be a painful one.

In light of that, incumbent politicians generally do not like high rates. Donald J. Trump railed against them when he was president, and while President Biden has avoided criticizing them overtly out of respect for the Fed’s independence, other Democrats have not been so circumspect. After the European Central Bank cut rates last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and other Democrats sent a letter to the Fed chair pushing him to follow suit.

“The Fed’s decision to keep interest rates high continues to widen the rate gap between Europe and the U.S., as the lower interest rates could push the dollar higher, tightening financial conditions,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Fed says it does not take politics into account when setting interest rates, a line officials are likely to maintain this week.

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