Thursday, March 23, 2023

Fed delivers small rate increase, says 'some additional' tightening possible

Officials see year-end 2023 policy rate at 5.10%, dollar weakens against a basket of major currencies

Federal Reserve Board building on Constitution Avenue is pictured in Washington, US, March 19, 2019. — Reuters
Federal Reserve Board building on Constitution Avenue is pictured in Washington, US, March 19, 2019. — Reuters

  • Fed lifts rates by a quarter of a percentage point.
  • Officials see year-end 2023 policy rate at 5.10%.
  • Dollar weakened against a basket of major currencies.

WASHINGTON: The Federal Reserve on Wednesday raised interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point, but indicated it was on the verge of pausing further increases in borrowing costs amid recent turmoil in financial markets spurred by the collapse of two US banks.

The move set the US central bank's benchmark overnight interest rate in the 4.75%-5.00% range, with updated projections showing 10 of 18 Fed policymakers still expect rates to rise another quarter of a percentage point by the end of 2023, the same endpoint seen in the December projections, even amid uncertainty about how much tighter financial conditions will weigh on a strong labour market and the currently resilient pace of inflation.

In a key shift driven by the sudden failures this month of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank, the Fed's latest policy statement no longer says that "ongoing increases" in rates will likely be appropriate. That language had been in every policy statement since the March 16, 2022 decision to start the rate hiking cycle.

Yields on Treasury securities dropped following the release of the statement, led by a fall of more than 10 basis points in the yield on the 2-year Treasury note, which is highly sensitive to Fed rate expectations. US stocks surged, with the benchmark S&P 500 index rising from the unchanged mark to a gain of 0.6%. The dollar weakened against a basket of major trading partner currencies.

"The Fed has been spooked by Silicon Valley Bank and other banking turmoil. They certainly point to that as a potential depressant on inflation, perhaps helping them do their job without having to raise rates as aggressively," said Tim Ghriskey, senior portfolio strategist at Ingalls & Snyder.

The policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee said only that "some additional policy firming may be appropriate," leaving open the chance that one more quarter-of-a-percentage-point rate increase, perhaps at the Fed's next meeting, would represent at least an initial stopping point for the rate hikes.

Though the policy statement said the US banking system is "sound and resilient," it also noted that recent stress in the banking sector is "likely to result in tighter credit conditions for households and businesses and to weigh on economic activity, hiring, and inflation."

There were no dissents on the policy decision.

Elevated inflation

The policy statement made no presumption that the battle with inflation has been won. The new statement dropped language saying that inflation "has eased" and replaced it with the declaration that inflation "remains elevated."

Job gains are "robust," according to the Fed.

Officials projected the unemployment rate would end the year at 4.5%, slightly below the 4.6% seen in projections issued in December, while the outlook for economic growth fell slightly to 0.4% from 0.5% in the previous projections. Inflation is now seen ending the year at 3.3%, compared to 3.1% in the last projections.

The outcome of the two-day meeting this week marks an abrupt repositioning of the central bank's strategy from just two weeks ago, when Fed Chair Jerome Powell testified in Congress that hotter-than-expected inflation would likely force the central bank to raise interest rates higher and possibly faster than expected.

The March 10 collapse of California-based SVB and the subsequent collapse of New York-based Signature Bank highlighted broader concerns about the health of the banking sector and raised the possibility that further Fed rate increases might tip the economy towards a financial crisis.

Powell is scheduled to hold a news conference at 2:30pm EDT (1830 GMT) to elaborate on the policy decision and the Fed's views on recent events.