Federal Reserve Keeps Rates Unchanged but Cites ‘Progress’ Toward Goals

The central bank gave the clearest hint yet that it will soon begin to shift bond-buying from emergency mode.

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Federal Reserve Holds Rates Near Zero

The chair, Jerome H. Powell, said the Fed was keeping interest rates unchanged and would continue to buy large amounts of government debt, but suggested that these purchases could taper off as recovery continued.

Today, the Federal Open Market Committee kept interest rates near zero, and maintained our asset purchases. These measures, along with our strong guidance on interest rates and on our balance sheet, will ensure that monetary policy will continue to support the economy until the recovery is complete. It’s not timely for us to be thinking about raising interest rates right now. What we’re doing is we’re looking at our asset purchases and judging what is right for the economy and judging how close we are to substantial further progress. And then, and then tapering after that. We feel like we’re going to be making good progress over the next — in the course of the next year, couple of years, really toward maximum employment. This is a very strong labor market. If you look at the number of job openings compared to the number of unemployed, it’s — we’re clearly on a path to a very strong labor market with high participation, low unemployment, high employment, wages moving up across the spectrum. That’s the path that we’re on. And it shouldn’t take that long in macroeconomic time to get there.

The chair, Jerome H. Powell, said the Fed was keeping interest rates unchanged and would continue to buy large amounts of government debt, but suggested that these purchases could taper off as recovery continued.CreditCredit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

July 28, 2021Updated 6:43 p.m. ET

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday offered the most direct signal yet that it will begin to dial back its emergency support for the economy in the near future, as its chair, Jerome H. Powell, made it clear that policymakers will do so deliberatively and with plenty of warning.

Fed officials voted to leave both of their key policy supports intact before wrapping up their two-day July meeting, holding interest rates near zero and continuing government-backed bond purchases unabated. Those two tools fuel economic demand by making money cheap to borrow and spend.

But they spent the meeting debating when and how to slow the bond-buying program, which is expected to be the first step toward a more normal policy setting as the economy rebounds strongly from its pandemic stupor. A decision isn’t imminent, but officials used their July policy statement to signal that one is coming.

The Fed had said in December that it would keep buying bonds at a steady pace — $120 billion per month — until it had made “substantial” further progress toward its two targets, stable inflation and maximum employment.

“Since then, the economy has made progress toward these goals, and the committee will continue to assess progress in coming meetings,” the Fed’s policy-setting committee said in its postmeeting statement on Wednesday.

Mr. Powell offered an even more detailed outlook for the purchase program during his subsequent news conference. He explained that officials had not yet decided on the pace or structure of the coming slowdown, and that there were a “range of views” on when it should happen.

“We’re going to continue to try to provide clarity as appropriate,” Mr. Powell said, adding that this meeting had involved the first deep-dive discussion on those issues.

Mr. Powell delivered another message: The Fed isn’t ready to withdraw support just yet. He said that while the economy was progressing toward “substantial” progress, “we have some ground to cover on the labor market side.”

Investors have been keenly watching for any news on when and how the Fed will begin to withdraw from buying assets, worried that the announcement of a tapering program might whipsaw markets. Fed critics have been asking why the central bank continues to buy bonds, fueling an already-scorching housing market and pushing up sky-high stock prices.

Fed officials are trying to strike a balance, ensuring they are prepared to slow stimulus measures as the economy strengthens while avoiding an abrupt pullback. The latter could undermine the Fed’s credibility and potentially roil markets, causing lending to dry up and slowing the recovery when millions of prepandemic jobs are still missing and risks to the economy persist.

“They don’t want to cause a sharp and fast increase in interest rates — that would be detrimental,” said Roberto Perli, head of global policy research at Cornerstone Macro. “The labor market is still not where it should be.”

Lingering threats to the outlook have been underscored by rising coronavirus cases in the United States and around the world tied to the Delta variant.

Mr. Powell acknowledged risks from the variant, but he suggested that any economic pullback it drove might not be as severe as last year’s. Still, he said, “it might weigh on the return to the labor market,” noting that the Fed will be monitoring that “carefully.”

But the Fed chair conveyed a generally optimistic tone about the economy on Wednesday.

While he pointed out that the labor market had a lot of room left to heal, he also suggested that workers were lingering on the sidelines because they were afraid of the virus, had caregiving duties or were receiving generous unemployment insurance benefits. Those factors should fade as life returns to normal.

The United States is on a path to a strong labor market, and “it shouldn’t take too long, in macroeconomic time, to get there,” Mr. Powell said.

He discussed at length another reality of the reopening era: rising prices. As economic growth roars back, with strong consumer spending supported by repeated government stimulus checks, inflation is surging. That is partly the result of data quirks, but also because demand for washing machines, electronics, cars and housing is outstripping what producers can supply.

The Consumer Price Index picked up by 5.4 percent in June compared with a year earlier, the quickest pace since 2008. The Fed’s preferred inflation gauge has been slightly more muted, at 3.9 percent in May, but that, too, is well above the central bank’s 2 percent average inflation goal.

“Inflation has increased notably” Mr. Powell said, adding that it is likely to remain elevated in coming months. But as supply bottlenecks abate, he said, “inflation is expected to drop back toward our longer-run goal.”

Price gains could turn out to be higher and more persistent than Fed officials expect, Mr. Powell acknowledged. But expectations of where prices might head next seem consistent with the Fed’s goal, he said.

When Fed officials say they expect today’s pressures to prove “transitory,” Mr. Powell said, they mean that increases today will not lead to ever-higher prices down the road.

To put it even more plainly: A bag of flour might cost 5 cents more this year, but if the increase is transitory, it will not keep going up 5 cents with each passing year.

“The increases will happen — we’re not saying they will reverse,” Mr. Powell said, but “the process of inflation will stop.”

For now, officials are monitoring price increases but also staying focused on a different set of risks: About 6.8 million jobs are still missing compared with February 2020 levels. Workers are taking time to sort back into suitable employment, and the central bank wants to make sure the economic recovery is robust as they try to do that.

Even when the Fed begins to dial back bond-buying, interest rates are likely to remain low. Long-running forces, including the aging population and rising inequality, have pushed them down naturally, and the central bank is expected to keep its main policy rate — the federal funds rate — at rock bottom, where it has been since March 2020.

Officials have signaled that, barring a sustained burst in inflation or financial stability risks, they would like to leave interest rates near zero until the job market has returned to full employment. Their latest economic projections, released in June, suggested that most officials did not expect the economy to meet that high bar until 2023.

Mr. Powell reiterated a commitment to seeing the recovery through.

“The labor market has a ways to go,” he said. “We at the Fed will do everything we can to support the economy for as long as it takes to complete the recovery.”

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