The Federal Reserve on Wednesday is widely expected to raise interest rates, continuing to pull back from its decade-long effort to stimulate economic growth.
Interest rates are currently in a range of 1.75 percent to 2 percent, and Wall Street forecasters near-unanimously predict Fed officials will increase them to a range of 2 percent to 2.25 percent.
But the question on the minds of investors, borrowers and President Trump is how many more rate hikes are coming after this one.
The Fed will give a big hint of what’s coming when it releases its quarterly forecasts Wednesday. In June, the last time the forecasts came out, a slim majority of the central bank’s board wanted to do a December rate hike. If any more board members indicate they think a December rate hike is merited now, it will be seen as nearly a done deal. The Fed has also indicated it wants three more rate hikes in 2019.
Even after the expected Wednesday increase, the rates would still be low by historical standards. But they are the highest in the past decade, and people with credit card debt, small business loans or looking for a mortgage are having to adjust to higher interest payments.
“Under the current set of economic circumstances, the Fed seems to want to get the fed funds rate to 3 percent and possibly then some,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at the Bleakley Advisory Group.
Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell, who has led the central bank since February, will speak Wednesday following the Fed’s announcement, remarks expected to add clarity to how strong the Fed thinks the economy is and whether the Fed will stay on its “gradual” rate hike path.
Trump has made it clear he thinks Powell is going to hurt economic growth by raising rates. In August, the president said he was “not thrilled” with Powell, his own appointee, for hiking rates. But the Fed is an independent organization and has shown no signs of being swayed by the president’s jabs.
The Fed will announce its interest rate decision at 2 p.m. Powell’s news conference is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.
Here’s what else to watch for from the Fed today:
1. Does the word “accommodative" disappear? In recent years, the Fed’s statement has explicitly said that “the stance of monetary policy remains accommodative," meaning aimed at boosting growth. It’s possible the Fed could eliminate that part of the statement today, another signal the central bank plans to stay the course on raising rates.
2. More trade worries? Powell will almost certainly be asked about trade. While the central bank has indicated some concern about Trump’s tariffs, Fed members have been careful to say they haven’t seen much sign of the tariffs hurting the broader economy — yet. But Trump just tripled the amount of tariffs in place this week with his latest import taxes on Chinese goods.
3. What’s the “neutral” or “normal” level of interest rates? There’s ongoing debate about whether 3 percent (or another number) is the “neutral” or “normal” level of interest rates, meaning that’s the rate that doesn’t boost or curtail the economy. Powell has tried to downplay this debate saying it’s impossible to know precisely what the number is, but as interest rates get closer to that mark, Wall Street is on edge about how much higher the Fed will take rates.
4. Are Trump’s tax cuts giving a bigger boost to the economy than expected? The Fed has said repeatedly that it views the economy as “strong” right now, but today’s forecasts and news conference will likely give more insight into whether the central bank thinks Trump’s tax cuts and additional spending are a short-term bounce or something that will have a longer-lasting economic impact.
“Watch their assessment of the underlying strength in the economy. Are they seeing more fiscal policy showing through to aggregate demand than they thought?” said William English, a professor at Yale and former director of the Fed’s Division of Monetary Affairs. “My guess is it might be a little higher than last time, because the economy seems to be on a pretty strong track.”