WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve is expected to hold interest rates steady at the conclusion of its two-day policy meeting on Wednesday, but it will still be a closely watched event as investors and policymakers look for clues about whether the Fed plans to raise rates more quickly than previously telegraphed.
Among the signals to pay attention to is how the Fed talks about inflation and whether officials express concern about an acceleration in prices or an economy that is growing too quickly.
The Fed is midway through what is meant to be a long and gradual march toward historically normal rates, and there is little indication that it plans to deviate from that path by raising rates at this meeting. The Fed raised its benchmark interest rate in March, to a range of 1.5 to 1.75 percent. Economic projections released at that meeting indicated that officials were split on whether they expected to raise rates a total of three or four times this year, with a narrow majority leaning toward three
Economists overwhelmingly predict that the Fed will next raise rates in June, but after that, the consensus begins to break down. Some analysts say to expect four total rate increases this year given the strength of the economy, including a historically low unemployment rate.
There will be no news conference after Wednesday’s meeting, so markets will have to scrutinize the official statement from the Federal Open Market Committee for any hint of changes to the Fed’s view of the economy or the likely path of monetary policy in the months to come.
Here is what to watch for on Wednesday afternoon.
Are officials feeling pressure on inflation?
Data released on Monday showed that wages and prices are now growing at 2 percent a year, according to the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the personal consumption expenditures price index. Excluding volatile food and energy prices, the rate is 1.9 percent. Those levels are important because they indicate inflation is finally reaching the 2 percent level that the Fed has explicitly targeted, after six years of failing to meet that goal.
The big question for this meeting is whether officials show new signs that they are worried about inflation climbing further in the months to come, which could mean more rate increases.
Several Fed officials have raised concerns in recent weeks about the economy “overheating” and pondered whether the Fed may need to pour some cold water on the economy with higher interest rates. The concern is that if the Fed does not raise interest rates quickly enough, wages and prices could begin to spiral up, forcing a sharp rate increase that could push the economy into recession.
If such a situation arises, “it’s very hard to navigate that without having an economic downturn,” Eric Rosengren, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, said in an interview last month. “My concern is that’s much worse than just having slightly slower growth” from a slightly faster pace of rate increases.
Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, said in a research note this week that “the recent firming in inflation validates the Fed’s assumption that the slowdown in inflation last year was transitory.”
“The Employment Cost Index picked up during the first quarter,” she said, “another sign that the economy is delivering the warming trend in wages and inflation” that the Fed has been watching for.
After the March meeting, the Fed statement said that “inflation on a 12-month basis is expected to move up in coming months and to stabilize around the Committee’s 2 percent objective over the medium term.” As Jim O’Sullivan of High Frequency Economics noted this week, that stabilization seems to be evident now in the data, so the inflation language will need to change at least a little bit.
Are risks to growth rising, or receding?
The chairman of the Fed, Jerome H. Powell, and other officials are broadly optimistic about the strength of the economy but have noted some risks on the horizon for growth — most notably a potential drag from a trade dispute with other nations. Some economists have also raised early concerns about slowing growth in Europe, which could affect the United States, and about other market metrics that could portend a slowdown, such as the rise in Treasury bond yields.
It is possible, though unlikely, that Fed officials reflect more of those concerns in this meeting’s statement.
In a research note this week, Krishna Guha of Evercore ISI said the statement would most likely lend “no support” to the idea that growth concerns could lead officials to slow the pace of rate increases in the months to come.
“We think the F.O.M.C. will retain the basic assessment that the economic outlook has strengthened in recent months, though this could be rephrased, for instance, to say the outlook remains solid,” Mr. Guha wrote. “And we think it will repeat the mantra that ‘further gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy’ will be warranted.”
The most likely course is staying the course
Many Fed watchers expect little, if any, change in the Fed statement on either growth or inflation expectations. In part, that’s because there haven’t been significant surprises in economic data since the last meeting — everything is more or less continuing to unfold as officials envisioned.
“We do not expect any major changes to the policy statement other than to mark the language to the incoming data,” analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch wrote this week. “We expect the committee to reaffirm their outlook for the economy and the path of policy from the previous statement, setting up the committee for a rate hike at the June meeting.”