Interest rate fixed for now, Fed hints at future hikes

The Fed announced Wednesday the key interest rate will remain the same and offered a bright outlook for the US economy, despite market disruptions during this fall's hurricane season. Analysts expect rate hikes to begin gradually after the new year. 

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen spoke at a conference in Washington ay the G30 International Banking Seminar, Oct. 15. 2017. While it is fixed for future interest rate hikes could be in the works.

With a new Federal Reserve leader about to be announced, the Fed is keeping its key interest rate unchanged. But it is hinting that it's preparing to resume raising rates as the economy shakes off the effects of recent hurricanes.

In a statement after its latest policy meeting ended Wednesday, the Fed left its benchmark rate in a low range of 1 percent to 1.25 percent. With the economy on solid footing, the Fed is expected to raise rates for the third time this year when it next meets in December.

Overall, the Fed's statement suggested a bright economic outlook, with steady if unspectacular growth and a healthy job market. It noted that a loss of US jobs in September was directly related to disruptions from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Economists have projected that on Friday the government will report a job gain of 310,000 for October – a dramatic rebound.

In addition, the Fed said that a rise in gasoline prices after the hurricanes would likely prove temporary and that overall price increases remain generally soft. It reiterated its expectation that prices will resume picking up toward its 2 percent inflation target.

The central bank remains confident, the statement said, that the strength of the job market and the overall economy will justify further gradual increases in interest rates.

"The uncertainty about the economic impact of hurricanes has subsided, and the Fed noted the strengthening economy by saying it is expanding at a 'solid rate,' said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate. "If that's not a prerequisite for an interest rate hike next month, I don't know what is."

President Trump has said he will announce on Thursday his choice to lead the Fed beginning in February. Jerome Powell, a Fed board member, is assumed to be the top contender.

"I think you will be extremely impressed by this person," Mr. Trump said Wednesday.

Trump's announcement will be scrutinized for what it might mean for the direction of interest rates, and perhaps for the economy. In selecting Mr. Powell, Trump would be deciding against offering a second term to Janet Yellen, who has drawn wide approval for her performance as chair. The first woman to lead the Fed, Ms. Yellen would also be the first leader of the central bank in decades not to be offered a second term after serving a full first term.

Powell has built a reputation as a centrist policymaker whose stance on interest rate increases would likely deviate little from Yellen's cautious approach. Powell would, though, be expected to be marginally more favorable toward easing some of the stricter financial rules that were enacted after the 2008 financial crisis. Trump has complained that those rules have been too restrictive.

In its statement Wednesday, the Fed noted the chronic problem of ultra-low inflation. The problem with too-low inflation is that it can slow the economy by causing consumers to delay purchases if they think they can buy a product or service for a lower price later.

And so far this year, inflation has actually been slowing. The trend that has raised doubts about whether, as the Fed has suggested, lower-than-optimal inflation reflects mainly temporary factors, such as a price war among cellphone service providers, or rather something more fundamental.

Last week, the government estimated that the economy grew at a solid 3 percent annual rate in the July-September quarter despite severe damage from two hurricanes. The economy has now posted two straight quarters of at least 3 percent annual growth – the strongest two-quarter stretch in three years. And the unemployment rate has reached a 16-year low of 4.2 percent.

Those factors, along with a stock market setting record highs, are thought to have put the Fed on a path to raise rates modestly later this year and thereby avoid having to tighten credit more aggressively later to prevent high inflation – something that would risk derailing the economy.

In its statement, the Fed noted that it's proceeding with a program to shrink its bond portfolio – a move that could mean higher long-term rates over time.

Wednesday's policy decision was approved 9 to 0, with Randal Quarles, Trump's first nominee for the board, taking part in his first interest-rate-setting meeting.

If Trump does announce that Powell will succeed Yellen, most analysts expect the Fed's pace of rate hikes beginning next year to remain gradual, with perhaps some possibility of a slight acceleration.

Yellen, who was selected as Fed chair by Former President Barack Obama, has been an outspoken advocate for the stricter regulations that took effect in 2010 to prevent another financial crisis. If Powell, as Fed chair, proves more inclined to ease some of those regulations, he would have an ally on the board in Quarles, who has become the Fed's first vice chairman for supervision – a position from which he can lead the effort to loosen regulations.

The seven-member board has three other vacancies, thereby providing Trump with additional ways to put his imprint on the central bank.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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