Fed keeps rates unchanged, acknowledges economy is ‘strong’
By Howard Schneider
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve held interest rates steady on Wednesday but left the door open to a further increase in borrowing costs in a policy statement that acknowledged the U.S. economy’s surprising strength but also nodded to the tighter financial conditions faced by businesses and households.
“Economic activity expanded at a strong pace in the third quarter,” the U.S. central bank said in a policy statement after a two-day meeting in which officials unanimously agreed to leave the benchmark overnight interest rate in the 5.25%-5.50% range where it has been since July.
The language marked an upgrade to the “solid pace” of activity the Fed saw as of its September meeting, and followed on recent data that showed U.S. gross domestic product grew at a 4.9% annual rate in the third quarter.
U.S. stocks edged higher following the release of the policy statement while the U.S. dollar pared gains against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury yields fell to session lows.
“The statement leans to the dovish side,” said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Spartan Capital Securities. “The fact that they left rates unchanged for the second time in a row suggests the Fed might leave rates unchanged in December. And if they do, that means the Fed is done.”
Though markets think the Fed’s rate-hiking campaign may be finished, with financial conditions tightening on their own through higher market-based interest rates, data pointing to a stronger-than-expected economy and labor market have kept the prospect of another hike on the table.
The Fed’s latest statement noted that with job gains still “strong” and inflation still “elevated,” the central bank continues to consider “the extent of additional policy firming that may be appropriate to return inflation to 2% over time.”
FOCUS ON POWELL
Fed Chair Jerome Powell will hold a press conference at 2:30 p.m. EDT (1830 GMT) to elaborate on the statement and an economic outlook that, so far, has defied expectations of an imminent slowdown.
His words may take on particular importance to investors trying to divine whether the Fed still plans to raise rates again, as a majority of its officials indicated in a September round of economic projections.
The policy statement itself has become increasingly spare as officials have become less certain about their next move, balancing a sluggish but continuing fall in inflation against a sense the economy is likely to slow in coming months, and concern that pushing too much harder with rate increases could cause it to slow more than needed.
The statement said the Fed was still watching the developing impact of its past rate hikes as it mulled further action, cognizant of “the lags with which monetary policy affects economic activity and inflation, and economic and financial developments.”
The phrase has been used to indicate a degree of patience in deciding on further rate increases, and an acknowledgement that the full impact of the 5.25 percentage points in rate hikes since March of 2022 has yet to be felt.
Adding to the possible pressure is a rise in market-based interest rates that could further dampen economic growth.
The statement nodded to that possible impact, adding a reference to tighter financial conditions as one of the factors “likely to weigh on economic activity,” with still uncertain effects.
(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Paul Simao)
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