WASHINGTON — Federal Reserve officials are widely expected to lift borrowing costs by a quarter of a percentage point on Wednesday, the 10th consecutive rate increase since March 2022. But investors and economists think that this could be the central bank’s last move before it pauses.
Fed officials face a complicated backdrop going into this week’s meeting: Risks to the financial system loom large, but inflation also remains stubborn.
The banking system has been in turmoil since the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank on March 10. Government officials spent this past weekend racing to find a buyer for First Republic, which had been struggling for weeks and was sold to JPMorgan Chase in a deal announced early Monday morning.
Some of the banking sector tumult stems from the Fed’s rapid interest rate increases over the past year. Central bankers are expected to lift rates to just above 5 percent this week, up from near-zero as recently as March 2022. After that quick series of adjustments, many lenders are facing losses on older securities and loans, which pay relatively low interest rates compared with newer securities issued in a higher-rate world.
Despite the Fed’s moves — which were meant to rein in quick inflation by slowing the economy — the job market has maintained some momentum and price increases have shown concerning staying power. Companies continue to hire at a solid clip, and data released last week showed that wages continued to climb quickly at the start of the year. While inflation has been slowing, it is increasingly driven by service price increases that have shown little sign of cooling off — which could make it difficult to wrestle price increases the whole way back to the Fed’s slow and steady goal.
Policymakers will give the public a sense of how they are thinking about the fraught economic moment on Wednesday in their post-meeting statement at 2 p.m. Because the Fed will not release fresh economic projections at this meeting — those come out just once a quarter — investors will look to a news conference with the Fed chair, Jerome H. Powell, at 2:30 p.m. for clues about what comes next.
The Fed could hint at a pause
When Fed policymakers released their economic estimates in March, they expected to raise interest rates to a range of 5 to 5.25 percent in 2023.
If officials adjust policy as expected this week, they will have lifted rates to that level. The question now is whether they deem that sufficient, or whether policymakers think that the economy and inflation are resilient enough that they will need to adjust borrowing costs more to cool things down and lower inflation fully.
Mr. Powell could offer some signal during his news conference, or he could opt to leave the Fed’s options open — which is what some economists expect.
“They don’t need to rule anything out,” said Blerina Uruci, chief U.S. economist at T. Rowe Price. “The worst scenario for them would be to signal that they’re done, then have the data force them to do a U-turn.”
Investors expect Fed officials to stop after this week, hold rates steady for a few months and then begin to lower them — perhaps substantially, to a range of 4.5 to 4.75 percent by the end of the year.
Fed policymakers, however, have been adamant that they do not expect to lower rates imminently. And some have hinted that more increases might be warranted if inflation and economic strength show staying power.
“Monetary policy needs to be tightened further,” Christopher Waller, a Fed governor and one of the central bank’s more inflation-focused members, said in an April 14 speech. “How much further will depend on incoming data on inflation, the real economy and the extent of tightening credit conditions.”
Bank turmoil will influence policy
Fed officials have been clear that the upheaval in the banking system could slow the economy — but policymakers do not know by how much.
Banking trouble is different from other types of business distress, because banks are like the yeast in the sourdough starter of the economy: If they aren’t working, nothing else grows. They lend out money to would-be home buyers, people who want to buy new cars or garage additions, and businesses that want to expand and hire.
It is pretty clear that banks are going to pull back their lending at least somewhat in response to the recent turmoil. Anecdotal signs are already surfacing around the country. The question is how acute that shift will be.
“If the response to recent banking problems leads to financial tightening, monetary policy has to do less,” Austan Goolsbee, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said in an April 11 speech. “It’s not clear by how much less.”
He noted that private-sector estimates suggested that the hit to growth from the banking turmoil could be equivalent to one to three quarter-point rate increases. That estimate came well before First Republic’s demise, but after its troubles started.
The economy’s resilience will be critical
One big question for the Fed — and which will matter for everyone — is whether the U.S. economy will squeak through this episode without plunging into a painful recession.
Fed staff members said at the central bank’s March meeting that they expected the economy to experience a “mild recession” in the wake of the recent banking turmoil. And Fed officials — including Mr. Powell — have suggested that a recession is possible as officials try to slow the economy enough to bring inflation under control.
But if a recession hits, it is not obvious how painful it will be. Some economists warn that downturns usually build on themselves, as people respond to a little bit of economic weakness by pulling back on spending a lot: It may be hard to push the unemployment rate up just a little bit without pushing it significantly.
Others point out that the post-pandemic economy is a weird one, characterized by unusually strong corporate profits and lots of job openings. Because there may be room to squeeze margins and cut unfilled positions, the economy may be able to cool down more gently than in the past — a so-called “soft landing.”
Mr. Powell will get a chance to weigh in on which outcome he thinks is most likely on Wednesday.