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Fed to raise interest rates ‘fairly soon’ as uncertainty about Trump policies looms

U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet L. Yellen (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
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The Federal Reserve said the economy’s continued growth might convince it to raise its benchmark interest rate “fairly soon,” according to minutes from its policy meeting released Wednesday, even as it acknowledged that the ambitious policies proposed by the Trump administration could have unforeseen effects on the U.S. economy.

Minutes from the Fed’s two-day meeting Jan. 31-Feb. 1 show that the tax cuts and spending proposals floated by the Trump administration continue to loom large over the central bank's decisions. While the Fed chose to leave its interest rates unchanged at the meeting three weeks ago, investors widely expect two to three more rate hikes this year, perhaps as early as March, as the Fed continues on its path of gradually raising interest rates to combat gathering inflation.

Yet the central bank emphasized that it would adjust the pace of rate increases in line with the economy's performance, which could be swayed by the policies the administration introduces in the months to come.

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Futures markets on Monday expected the Federal Reserve to remain on hold at its upcoming meeting in March, with an 82.3 percent probability that the benchmark interest rate would remain at its current level of 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent. Investors saw a greater likelihood of a rate hike in May or June.

“Since we’re told that their economic forecasts changed little since December, we can surmise that they’re still on track for as many as three rate hikes this year,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at

The central bank said it continues to carefully watch for signs that inflation will overshoot its longer-run target of 2 percent. But while some members of the committee judged that a tighter labor market could trigger price increases in the future, others argued that the threat of rapid inflation was not imminent.

In testimony before Congress on Feb. 14, Fed Chair Janet L. Yellen said it would be “unwise” to wait too long to hike rates and indicated that the Fed would carefully watch to see whether inflation accelerates in months to come. “We don’t want to base current policy on speculation about what may come down the line. We will wait to gain greater clarity on policy changes,” Yellen said.

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The minutes showed the Fed weighing both upside and downside risks from Trump administration policies. If enacted, proposed tax cuts for individuals and businesses would likely increase the amount of money in the economy and could lead to more inflationary pressures.

On the other hand, several committee members observed that the president's policies could also trigger an appreciation in the dollar, which would make U.S. exports seem relatively more expensive and a drag on growth. A trade war could also slow U.S. exports or destabilize foreign economies.

Some members of the committee argued that the Fed should continue undeterred on its path of gradually raising interest rates, with some cautioning against designing monetary policy to address fiscal policy that might never be enacted or might have different consequences than anticipated, the minutes showed.

The Fed has long aimed to raise interest rates from the near-zero levels where they've remained over the past decade, since higher interest rates would give the Fed more flexibility to ease monetary conditions and spark growth in the event of a future recession.

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The documents also showed that the Fed has begun discussing when to start unwinding its $4.5 trillion balance sheet of mortgage-backed and Treasury securities, which it acquired in an effort to ease lending and stimulate the economy after the financial crisis. Committee members agreed they would start discussions at upcoming meetings about what kind of economic conditions could precipitate those changes and how they would signal them to the market. Those changes are widely expected to boost long-term interest rates.

“The downward pressure on longer-term interest rates exerted by the Federal Reserve’s asset holdings was expected to diminish in the years ahead in light of an anticipated gradual reduction in the size and duration of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet,” the minutes said.

The committee’s discussion painted a picture of an economy that continues to gradually strengthen from the depths of the recession. U.S. gross domestic product — a broad measure of economic growth — expanded at a moderate rate in the fourth quarter, while the labor market continued to improve, with the unemployment rate falling to 4.7 percent in December, the committee said. Inflation picked up but remained below the Fed’s 2 percent target.

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However, some metrics hint that slightly higher growth and inflation could be just around the corner. Measures of consumer confidence reached an “elevated level” in December and January, the committee said, and spending on private residences and business equipment picked up.

The Fed said growth in the euro area and the United Kingdom remained “relatively solid,” while economies in China and emerging markets were “robust.” However, growth slowed elsewhere in Asian emerging economies and in Mexico, the officials noted.

Lending to consumers and businesses has remained readily available, and stock markets have climbed significantly since the election, reflecting the belief of investors that fiscal and other policy changes will boost economic activity and corporate profits, the minutes said.

At a speech to the Forecasters Club of New York on Wednesday, Jerome Powell, a member of the Fed’s Board of Governors, said that the central bank was close to accomplishing its dual objectives of maximum employment and an inflation rate of roughly 2 percent. Yet the economy still faces longer-term challenges, including labor productivity that is growing at some of the slowest rates since World War II, he said.

“All in all, we appear to be close to our employment objective and are nearing our inflation objective. While the pace of progress has at times been frustratingly slow, this outcome is a better one than that achieved by most other advanced economies,” Powell said. “ … Going forward, I see it as appropriate to gradually tighten policy as long as the economy continues to behave roughly as expected.”

The Federal Reserve’s decision at its Jan.-Feb. meeting was unanimous, with all 10 voting members of the committee opting to leave interest rates unchanged, following a decision to lift interest rates at its previous two-day policy meeting in December.