Fed Is in No Rush to Cut Rates as Economy Holds Up


Federal Reserve officials are entering an uncertain summer. They are not sure how quickly inflation will cool, how much the economy is likely to slow or just how long interest rates need to stay high in order to make sure that quick price increases are fully vanquished.

What they do know is that, for now, the job market and broader economy are holding up even in the face of higher borrowing costs. And given that, the Fed has a safe play: Do nothing.

That is the message central bankers are likely to send at their two-day meeting this week, which concludes on Wednesday. Officials are expected to leave interest rates unchanged while avoiding any firm commitment about when they will cut them.

Policymakers will release a fresh set of economic projections, and those could show that central bankers now expect to make just two interest rate cuts in 2024, down from three when they last released forecasts in March. Economists think that there is a small chance that officials could even predict just one cut this year. But whatever they forecast, officials are likely to avoid giving a clear signal of when rate reductions will begin.

Investors do not expect a rate cut at the Fed’s next meeting in July, after which policymakers will not meet again until September. That gives officials several months of data and plenty of time to think about their next move. And because the economy is holding up, central bankers have the wiggle room to keep rates unchanged as they wait to see if inflation will decelerate without worrying that they are on the brink of plunging the economy into a sharp downturn.

“They’ll continue to suggest that rate cuts are coming later this year,” said Gennadiy Goldberg, head of U.S. rates strategy at TD Securities. He said that he expected a reduction in September, and that he did not think the Fed would give any hint at timing this week.

“They don’t have to rush,” he explained. “Things are slowing very gradually. They are not falling off a cliff.”

Fed officials have held interest rates at 5.3 percent since July, after raising them sharply from near zero starting in March 2022. Higher Fed interest rates trickle through financial markets and make it more expensive for consumers and businesses to borrow money.

Over time, higher borrowing costs are expected to slow growth by weighing on the housing market and causing people to delay big purchases like cars. They also tend to discourage companies from expanding, prodding them to hire fewer workers. And as rates weigh on demand, they should, in theory, make it harder for companies to raise prices as rapidly, helping inflation to slow.

But today’s elevated rates are taking time to weigh down the economy, and recent data have given Fed officials reasons to hold off on imminent rate cuts.

Officials have been clear that they could cut interest rates sooner rather than later if hiring pulled back and unemployment began to shoot up — but so far, that is not happening. Job gains last month were much stronger than economists had expected, and wage growth picked up, a sign that demand for workers remained solid.

Inflation, meantime, has been stubborn. Price increases slowed rapidly in 2023, but that progress stalled in the early months of 2024. They cooled slightly in April, but policymakers have signaled that they want further evidence that inflation is slowing again before they begin to lower rates.

The May reading of the Consumer Price Index will be released on Wednesday morning, giving officials the latest data on inflation just before their 2 p.m. decision on interest rates. Economists in a Bloomberg survey expect to see some slight cooling in a closely watched “core” inflation measure, which strips out volatile food and fuel prices to give a clearer sense of how prices are evolving.

Fed officials aim for 2 percent inflation on average over time, and the central bank defines that goal using the Personal Consumption Expenditures index — a separate inflation measure that uses some data from the Consumer Price Index, but that is released later in the month. It also remains elevated, at 2.7 percent.

And in a development that may worry Fed officials, consumers have begun to report higher longer-term inflation expectations. Measures released by both the University of Michigan and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York have ticked up in recent months.

Some Fed officials have suggested that they still think the early 2024 inflation stickiness is likely to fade with time.

“I see some of the recent inflation readings as representing mostly a reversal of the unusually low readings of the second half of last year, rather than a break in the overall downward direction of inflation,” John C. Williams, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said during a speech on May 30.

But Mr. Williams and his colleagues have been clear that they are prepared to hold rates high for a longer period than they had previously expected until they are sure that inflation is cooling again. As higher rates linger, investors and consumers alike are eager to see them come down.

Today’s relatively high interest rates are having a noticeable, even painful, effect for some borrowers: Credit card rates have shot up, it’s expensive to finance a car purchase and home sales have slowed as mortgage rates have topped 7 percent.

But as they hit some customers in the wallet, high borrowing costs have had an uneven legacy when it comes to putting the brakes on the economy as a whole. The housing market has slowed, but it has not fallen off a cliff. Overall economic growth has most recently cooled, but in general it has been bouncing around.

Most Fed officials have suggested that they do not expect to raise interest rates more, even with that unexpected resilience. While they are unwilling to fully rule out such a move, they are more inclined to simply leave borrowing costs on hold for a long time.

“It is really a question of keeping policy at the current rate for a longer time than had been thought,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said during a speech last month.

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