The Federal Reserve raised interest rates a quarter-point Wednesday and officials indicated the central bank is highly likely to hike rates again in December and three more times next year, bucking President Trump’s request to hold off.
The Fed stressed repeatedly that the U.S. economy is “strong” across the board and no longer needs the heavy stimulus the central bank put into place during the Great Recession, but the president is concerned that higher rates will harm the economy.
“I am not happy about [the rate hike]. I’d rather pay down debt," Trump said Wednesday at a news conference after his U.N. meetings. “I’m worried about the fact that they seem to like rising interest rates. We can do other things with the money."
It’s unclear what Trump meant when he said there are other actions the Fed can take “with the money.” The Fed’s action Wednesday set the interest rates that banks and, ultimately, consumers and businesses pay. The Fed’s higher rates may eventually cost the government money if they make it more expensive to pay down the federal debt, but the central bank didn’t move any money around Wednesday.
The hike increases the federal funds rate from a range of 1.75 to 2 percent to a range of 2 to 2.25 percent, the highest level in a decade and likely to be felt by Americans who have a lot of debt or are seeking a bank loan. After the Fed boosts the federal funds rate, interest rates on credit cards, mortgages and small-business loans typically rise, as well.
The Fed also increased its growth projections for this year and next, an indication that it sees little sign that the trade war, rising oil prices or political turmoil will derail the economy. The U.S. economy is expected to grow 3.1 percent this year, the Fed said, which would be the first time the economy has topped the 3 percent mark for annual growth since 2005. Trump has repeatedly taken credit for the economy.
“Our economy is strong. Growth is running at a healthy clip. Unemployment is low. The number of people working is rising steadily, and wages are up. Inflation is low and stable. All of these are very good signs,” Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell said during a news conference Wednesday, adding that tax cuts “no doubt” played a role in boosting the economy.
When asked about the escalating trade war, Powell said that businesses are expressing a lot of concern about higher costs and disruption to their supply chains, but he emphasized that the damage isn’t showing up in the hard data yet. His main worry is that Trump’s trade battle with China and other nations could result in more, not fewer, trade barriers.
“Where is this going? If the end place we get to is lower tariffs, that would be good,” Powell said. “If this goes to a thing where we have widespread tariffs that remain in place for a long time, that’s going to be bad for the U.S. economy and American workers.”
Despite trade concerns, the Fed projects a rosy period for the economy in the coming years. Trump’s goal is to have annual growth hit 3 percent, and the White House predicts it will stay at that level for about a decade. The Fed, however, anticipates growth will fall back to 2.5 percent in 2019, 2 percent in 2020 and 1.8 percent in 2021 as the benefits of the tax cut fade. But the Fed is optimistic it can steer the economy to avoid a recession.
“The odds are rising that the Fed can pull off a soft landing for the economy,” said Ryan Sweet, head of monetary policy research at Moody’s Analytics.
In a telling signal, the Fed deleted the line from its statement that said monetary policy will “remain accommodative,” an indication the Fed believes it’s getting closer to the “neutral” level of interest rates at which policy doesn’t help or hurt the economy.
Powell downplayed the significance of the move, saying at the news conference that policy is still slightly stimulative and that the latest rate hike was not an attempt to cool the economy. Stocks retreated slightly as he spoke, with the S&P 500 closing down 0.3 percent.
Trump has urged Powell, his own appointee, not to raise rates further, but the central bank is an independent agency that shows no sign of bowing to presidential pressure. Twelve of the Fed’s 16 leaders now anticipate another rate hike by the end of the year.
“Consumers should bank on rates for consumer loans rising an additional full percentage point starting in December of this year,” said Robert Frick, an economist at Navy Federal Credit Union.
It’s an ongoing question how high the Fed will take interest rates. Fed leaders released new projections Wednesday showing the neutral level for interest rates is 3 percent, a level they are likely to hit within the next year. If they go beyond that, business leaders are likely to read that as a sign the Fed is concerned that the economy is overheating, inflation is picking up too much and the central bank wants to rein that in.
The Fed doesn’t foresee interest rates going much above 3.25 to 3.5 percent in the coming years, although central bankers stress they will adjust policy depending upon what happens with the economy.
For now, the Fed is predicting unemployment will fall to 3.7 percent this year and 3.5 percent next year and that inflation will remain modest at 2.1 percent this year and 2 percent next year.