The Federal Reserve sees an ongoing slowdown in the U.S. economy and will maintain patience about raising interest rates, according to a summary of the central bank’s most recent meeting on Jan. 29-30.
The Fed is accommodating a shift in economic growth that is expected to slow from about 3 percent last year to 2.3 percent this year.
“The Fed may be getting this right,” said Michael Farr, a Washington investor. It “may be pausing without having killed the expansion and bull market and without causing a recession.”
The central bank this year will stop shrinking the $4 trillion in Treasury securities and other assets that the bank accumulated as part of its rescue of the U.S. economy following the financial crisis.
“Almost all participants thought that it would be desirable to announce before too long a plan to stop reducing the Federal Reserve’s asset holdings later this year,” according to the Fed release Wednesday afternoon.
The central bank started unwinding its asset portfolio in 2017. Some analysts say its shrinking portfolio — a “runoff” — contributed to the stock sell-off in late 2018.
“There are strong hints that the Fed is zoning in on ending balance sheet normalization later this year,” said James Ong, senior macro strategist at Invesco Fixed Income.
The Dow Jones industrial average wobbled into negative territory immediately after the Fed’s release on Wednesday, but then regained some upward momentum.
Some analysts said the minutes show a Federal Reserve that is keeping its powder dry.
“The much ballyhooed term ‘patient’ was used to buy the Fed some time to assess how risks to the economy unfold before deciding on their next move,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com. “If the economy remains in good shape, we haven’t necessarily seen the last of the interest rate hikes.”
The central bank is closely watched because the interest rates it sets have a broad effect on the U.S. economy, influencing everything from stock and bond prices to mortgages, car loans and credit card interest.
The Fed had been heavily criticized by President Trump for raising interest rates last year, which the president blamed for tanking the stock market in the final months of 2018. Trump has closely tied the success of his presidency to the performance of U.S. stocks.
The market began a volatile period beginning with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell’s interview on PBS on Oct. 3, in which he said “we’re a long way” from a halt in interest rate increases.
Those statements helped spur a relentless sell-off that was aggravated by computer trading and ended with the worst Christmas Eve stock crash in decades and the poorest December market performance since the Great Depression.
Wall Street and Trump accused Powell of being too aggressive and not attuned to the economy.
Powell backed off in late January when the central bank opted to leave interest rates unchanged — at a range of 2.25 to 2.5 percent — and signaled a halt to increases and more close attention to the economy.
The language in January marked a significant change from December, when the central bank was still saying that “further gradual increases” in rates would probably be necessary.
Investors have been on edge, trying to figure out where Powell and the Fed will move next. Every Fed utterance is scrutinized for clues on whether borrowing costs will stay low.
“This is good news,” said Ivan Feinseth of Tigress Financial Partners. “The Fed has positioned itself to be as accommodative or as restrictive as needed. They want to be in a position to help the economy.”
The economy is still strong. The Dow and the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index are up more than 11 percent this year.
After keeping rates at nearly zero starting in 2009, the Fed has raised rates nine times since December 2015 on the strength of the economy.
The Fed tends to raise rates to slow the economy if it worries it is overheating and there is a danger of a breakout of inflation.
On the other hand, the Fed keeps rates low to spur investment and consumer spending to drive economic expansion.