US Fed officials were wary of cutting rates too quickly

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Federal Reserve officials were wary of cutting interest rates too quickly this year, according to a record of their last meeting in January, as they remained “highly attentive” to the risk of resurgent inflation.

While rate-setters were content with progress on reducing inflation and meeting the Fed’s goal of full employment, the minutes confirmed their view that it was too soon to consider cutting rates from their 23-year high of between 5.25 per cent to 5.5 per cent.

“Participants noted that the economic outlook was uncertain and that they remained highly attentive to inflation risks,” the record of the meeting, published on Wednesday, said.

Market reactions were muted, with US stocks on Wednesday recovering from a brief dip and the two-year Treasury yield, which moves with interest rate expectations, quickly reversing a modest rise. Bets on the pace of Fed rate cuts this year were little changed.

The release of the minutes come three weeks after Jay Powell used his post-meeting press conference on January 31 to push back against markets’ expectations that the central bank would begin cutting rates as soon as March — a hawkish stance that sparked a sell-off across US equity markets.

Powell also confirmed in January that the Federal Open Market Committee would begin discussions on when to start slowing the sale of US government bonds to reduce the size of its balance sheet.

The Fed has been allowing as much as $60bn worth of Treasuries and $35bn of mortgage-backed securities to roll off its balance sheet under its so-called quantitative tightening programme.

The Fed bought trillions of dollars in US government debt during the early stages of the pandemic to stave off a market meltdown. But that policy ended in 2022 as inflation soared.

According to the minutes officials discussed “an eventual decision to slow the pace of run-off” — an indication that a slowdown in the pace of QT could still be a way off.

On rate cuts, the minutes were largely in line with the more hawkish stance taken by Powell after last month’s meeting, when he used the news conference to say that while the Fed’s next move would be to reduce rates, officials’ “base case” did not include a cut at the next meeting on March 20.

Hotter-than-expected inflation data in recent weeks has also tempered market expectations for as many as six cuts this year. Traders are now banking on four, starting in June. The Fed’s most recent guidance pointed to three cuts this year.

Since the Fed’s last meeting, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that consumer prices rose 3.1 per cent in the year to January, a fall from 3.4 per cent in December — but a smaller improvement in the data than had been expected.

The closely watched measure of core inflation, which strips out the volatile food and energy components, remained at 3.9 per cent.

But sharp falls in inflation measured by the personal consumption expenditures index, the Fed’s preferred gauge, over the second half of 2023 had boosted hopes of rate cuts this year. Annualised PCE inflation for the past six months is now below the Fed’s goal.

However, while rate-setters acknowledged “significant progress” in their quest to drive inflation back towards the goal of 2 per cent, they said it reflected “idiosyncratic” factors.

Some officials warned of “downside risks” to the economy this year, including slower consumer spending, which could hit forecasts for gross domestic product growth of 1.4 per cent.

While American consumers helped make the US the best economic performer in the G7 this year, some committee members flagged that the finances of poorer and middle-income households were becoming stretched.

“They pointed to increased usage of credit card revolving balances and buy now, pay later services, as well as increased delinquency rates for some types of consumer loans,” the minutes said.

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