The Federal Reserve left its benchmark interest rate unchanged on Wednesday, keeping the rate in a range of 1.75 percent to 2 percent, but the central bank said the U.S. economy is “strong” and hinted that more rate hikes are coming soon.
President Trump has urged the Fed to keep rates low, but the central bank is an independent body, and Fed leaders have made it clear they intend to carry out their mandate to keep unemployment down and prices stable without political interference. Fed policymakers think the U.S. economy is on very good footing now and that the historically low rates that were put in place to aid the economy after the Great Recession are no longer necessary.
“The labor market has continued to strengthen and … economic activity has been rising at a strong rate,” the Fed said in its statement Wednesday, adding that it expects “further gradual increases” in interest rates.
The Fed statement described economic conditions as “strong” or “strengthening” six times, an upgrade from June, when the central bank called the economy “solid.”
The Fed has predicted it will raise interest rates two more times this year and three times in 2019. The vast majority of economists and Wall Street traders think the Fed will lift rates to a range of 2 percent to 2.25 percent at its next meeting in late September and then to a range of 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent at its meeting in December, according to the CME FedWatch Tool, which traders use to make predictions about future Fed actions. These rates are still low by historical standards, but they would be the highest rates in a decade.
Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell said recently that the U.S. economy is “in a really good place.” While Fed leaders have warned that tariffs imposed by Trump and other countries in recent weeks could slow growth, they have said the economy continues to power ahead despite those concerns.
Unemployment is at 4 percent, one of the lowest levels in years, and growth hit 4.1 percent in the second quarter, the best quarterly bounce since 2014. Inflation remains modest, with most metrics just shy of the Fed’s 2 percent target, and the stock market has stayed near record highs.
The Fed is trying to gradually lift interest rates to a more normal level, which central bank leaders put at about 3 percent, but Trump has long preferred low rates because they make it cheaper to borrow money to build new real estate or expand a business.
"I don’t like all of this work that we’re putting into the economy and then I see rates going up,” Trump told CNBC in July, adding that he was “not thrilled” with Powell’s plan to gradually raise rates. Modern presidents have typically shied away from commenting on Fed policy, although George H.W. Bush later blamed the central bank for his reelection loss, arguing the Fed didn’t cut rates fast enough to help the economy recover from the 1990-91 recession.
Union leaders and left-leaning groups have joined the president in urging the Fed to keep rates low to allow more people to find work and for wages to finally rise. Private-sector pay rose 2.9 percent in the past year, the fastest rate in a decade, according to the Employment Cost Index released Tuesday by the Labor Department. But it’s still below the rapid wage gains of the late 1990s. Many workers aren’t feeling better off because costs are also rising, especially for health care and education.
“It doesn’t matter to a worker that GDP is great and unemployment is at 3.9 percent if their wages are flat and they still don’t have health care,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast Wednesday. “Our members are still working in an economy that’s getting worse for them, not better — worse in terms of wages.”
The Labor Department’s monthly jobs and wage report comes out on Friday and is widely viewed as the best gauge on how the labor force is faring. ADP, a company that processes payrolls for millions of Americans, said Wednesday that 219,000 private sector jobs were added in July, higher than expected. Manufacturing has seen particularly robust job growth in the past year, and the Institute for Supply Management reported Wednesday that the manufacturing sector continued to expand in July, although growth slowed from earlier in the summer as companies faced higher costs on transportation and Trump’s tariffs.
Many economists say the Fed needs to raise rates now while the economy is healthy to prevent it from overheating. If inflation gets too high, the Fed will be forced to raise rates quickly, a scenario that often triggers a downturn, which could hurt working-class people more as job losses tend to rise during recessions.
“My feeling is maybe the markets are underestimating a little bit that the pace might increase,” said James Kahn, chair of the economics department at Yeshiva University and a former vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “Where rates are now is still pretty low, yet unemployment is low, economic growth seems pretty strong and inflation is now pretty much where the Fed wants it to be — about 2 percent. All of that points toward policy being neutral. But it’s not. It’s still stimulative.”