The Federal Reserve on Wednesday subtly hinted that it could be ready to raise its influential interest rate in December amid steady improvement in the job market and solid economic growth.
For now, however, the central bank’s top officials voted to keep rates unchanged following their two-day policy meeting in Washington.
In a carefully worded statement, the Fed left open the door for a hike before long. "The committee judges that the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has continued to strengthen, but decided, for the time being, to wait for some further evidence of continued progress toward its objectives," the statement read.
The language is slightly stronger than the Fed's previous statements on the timing of a rate hike. Most investors and analysts have already shifted their sights to December. Before Wednesday’s announcement, futures markets pointed to a roughly 75 percent chance of a hike at the Fed’s last meeting of the year.
“All the stars are aligned for a December Fed move,” Roberto Perli, an economist at Cornerstone Macro, wrote in a research note ahead of the meeting.
Wall Street appeared to shrug off the widely expected decision. Stock markets have traded in the red for most of the day and were little changed in the minutes after the Fed's announcement. The blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average was down 57 points, or 0.3 percent, while the broader Standard & Poor's 500-stock index had lost 17 points, or 0.8 percent. The tech-heavy Nasdaq had fallen 54 points, or about 1 percent.
Many expected the Fed would not risk upsetting financial markets by hiking rates Wednesday, less than a week before the presidential election, as such a move potentially could have turned the central bank into a political target in the final days of this heated campaign. Although the Fed’s board of governors are political appointees, the central bank is considered an independent institution.
“If there is an election even that is significant enough and likely enough that it will alter the course of the economy, then we should take that into account,” Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren said in an interview last month. “I don’t think we should worry about it otherwise.”
Rosengren, who had supported a rate hike at the Fed's last meeting in September, voted in favor of staying put Wednesday. Kansas City Fed President Esther George and Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester dissented from that decision, arguing instead for an increase.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has accused the Fed of having political motivations for keeping interest rates low. He blasted Fed Chair Janet Yellen in an interview on CNBC recently, saying that she “should be ashamed of herself.” Speaking at a news conference in September, Yellen defended the Fed’s neutrality.
“I can say emphatically that partisan politics plays no role in our decisions about the appropriate stance of monetary policy,” she said.
The Fed raised its benchmark interest rate from zero to 0.25 percent at the end of last year, the first increase since the Great Recession. Officials initially anticipated hiking as many as four more times this year but gradually lowered their expectations as turmoil overseas -- first in China, then in Britain -- rocked the global economy.
Central bank officials have emphasized that the pace of rate hikes will depend on the evolution of the economy. If the recovery picks up steam, the Fed could move more quickly. But if momentum slows, the Fed would be more cautious -- as evidenced by officials’ repeated delays this year.
Weak economic growth at home and abroad during the first half of the year helped convinced the Fed to stay its hand despite continued strong gains in hiring. The improvement in the job market has helped draw more workers into the labor force, a development Yellen has pointed to as evidence that the central bank’s policies are working. The unemployment rate has hovered at about 5 percent for much of the year. In its statement, the Fed noted that inflation finally appears to be picking up, although it remains below the Fed’s target of 2 percent.
The solid -- though unspectacular -- performance is bolstering officials’ confidence that the economy will be able to withstand another increase in interest rates. The Fed is aiming to raise rates gradually to try to avoid an abrupt, potentially destabilizing hike if the economy overheats and inflation takes off. Officials have indicated that they generally expect to increase rates twice next year.
But some at the central bank have called for even more patience. Chicago Fed President Charles Evans has argued that inflation should be allowed to rise above the Fed’s target after years of running below that goal. Others point to economic growth that remains low by historical standards, leaving the nation more vulnerable to a recession. And with interest rates still close to rock-bottom levels, the Fed is already near the limits of its power to backstop the recovery.
“This asymmetry in risk management in today's new normal counsels prudence in the removal of policy accommodation,” Fed Gov. Lael Brainard said in a speech this fall.