The Federal Reserve is expected to make history yet again on Wednesday, approving a fourth-straight rate hike of three-quarters of a percentage point as part of an aggressive battle to bring down the white-hot inflation that is plaguing the US economy.
The supersized hike would bring the central bank’s benchmark lending rate to a new target range of 3.75% to 4%. That’s the highest the fed funds rate has been since January 2008.
Wednesday’s decision, which comes at the end of a two-day policy meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, would also mark the Fed’s toughest policy move since the 1980s and will likely deepen the economic pain for millions of American businesses and households by pushing up the cost of borrowing even further. There’s also a chance it could trigger a recession.
While Fed Chair Jerome Powell has stressed that persistent, entrenched inflation would bring greater economic suffering than a recession would, he has also acknowledged the economic hardships that result from tightening monetary policy.
“I wish there were a painless way to do that. There isn’t,” he said in September.
Here’s what to watch for: According to the CME Fedwatch tool, traders believe there’s nearly a 90% chance of a three-quarter-percentage-point rate hike this month. That means investors have already switched their focus to the December meeting, which they expect will be the point at which the central bank starts to dial back its hawkish policy stance.
They will be closely watching Powell’s post-meeting press conference to see if he lays the groundwork for a step down in the pace of rate hikes. “He could do so by acknowledging the slowdown in the real economy already underway and emphasizing the lags between slowing economic activity and weakening price pressures,” wrote Michael Pearce, senior economist at Capital Economics, in a note to clients.
Recent data only underscores the “choose your own adventure” aspect of the US economy: Mortgage rates at levels not seen in almost 20 years are beginning to choke the housing market. Sales of newly constructed homes dropped 10.9% in September from August and were down 17.6% from a year ago.
Yet some inflationary pressures are easing. Wages and salaries rose by 1.2% in the third quarter, down from 1.6% in the second, according to the Employment Cost Index.
And through it all, the job market has remained tight. Job openings unexpectedly surged in September, indicating there are 1.9 job openings for every available worker. Friday’s upcoming jobs report is expected to show the economy added another 205,000 positions in October, down from last month but still historically high.
Looking forward: Wednesday’s policy announcement and the press conference that immediately follows will be closely analyzed for any potential forward guidance by the Fed.
“A 75 basis-point hike from the Fed this week is practically a done deal. The much bigger question is around how the Fed signals its future policy path,” wrote Luke Bartholomew, senior economist at abrdn, in a note.
“The challenge for the Fed is to signal a slowdown without letting the market develop a narrative of the Fed ‘pivoting’ away from its current priority of cooling underlying inflation pressures,” he wrote.