Federal Reserve likely to leave rates unchanged as prices remain high


WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and his fellow Fed officials are expected to play it safe when they meet his week, keeping their rate unchanged for a fifth straight time and signaling that they still need further evidence that inflation is returning sustainably to their 2% target.

The Fed's cautious approach illustrates what's unusual about this round of potential rate cuts. Vincent Reinhart, chief economist at Dreyfus-Mellon and a former Fed economist, notes that the Fed typically cuts rates quickly as the economy deteriorates in an often-futile effort to prevent a recession.

But this time, the economy is still healthy. The Fed is considering rate cuts only because inflation has steadily fallen from a peak of 9.1% in June 2022. As a result, it is approaching rate cuts the way it usually does rate hikes: Slowly and methodically, while trying to divine the economy's direction from often-conflicting data.

“The Fed is driving events, not events driving the Fed,” Reinhart said. “That's why this task is different than others.”

The central bank's policymakers had said after their last meeting in January that they needed “greater confidence” that inflation was cooling decisively toward their 2% target. Since then, the government has issued two inflation reports that showed the pace of price increases remaining high.

Excluding volatile food and energy costs, so-called “core” prices rose at a monthly pace of 0.4% in both January and February, a pace far higher than is consistent with the Fed's inflation target. Compared with a year earlier, core prices rose 3.8% in February. Core prices are considered a good signal of where inflation is likely headed.

But in February, a measure of housing costs slowed, a notable trend because housing is among the “stickiest” price categories that the government tracks. At the same time, more volatile categories, like clothing, used cars and airline tickets, drove up prices in February.

“Nothing about those two data prints made you feel substantially better about” inflation reaching the Fed's target soon, said Seth Carpenter, chief global economist at Morgan Stanley and also a former Fed economist. "But it’s not at all enough to make you change your view on the fundamental direction of travel” for inflation.

On Wednesday, the Fed's policymakers will update their quarterly economic projections, which are expected to repeat their December forecast for three rate cuts by the end of 2024. Still, it would take only two of the 19 Fed officials to change their forecast to one fewer rate cut for the central bank's overall projection to downshift to just two rate cuts for 2024. Some economists expect that to happen, given that inflation has remained persistent at the start of this year.

The Fed's benchmark rate stands at about 5.4%, the highest level in 23 years, after a series of 11 rate hikes that were intended to curb the worst inflation in four decades but have also made borrowing much more expensive for consumers and businesses.

Most economists expect the Fed to implement its first rate cut at its June meeting, which would mean that in May, the Fed would signal such a coming move. By June, the policymakers will have in hand three more inflation readings and three more jobs reports.

Sarah House, senior economist at Wells Fargo, said that timetable leaves plenty of time for inflation to resume its downward path. A rate reduction would likely lead, over time, to lower rates for mortgages, auto loans, credit cards and many business loans.

“They certainly need to see something better than the past couple of months, but they can get it,” she said.