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Fed raises rates amid signs of strengthening economy

On March 15, Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen announced that federal interest rates will increase by a quarter point. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate Wednesday, launching into what investors expect to be a more rapid series of increases that will help ward off the threat of inflation but also raise costs for indebted American households.

Fed officials voted nearly unanimously following a two-day policy meeting in Washington to raise the key interest rate for overnight lending by a quarter-point, from a range of 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent to a range of 0.75 percent to 1.0 percent.

“The simple message is the economy is doing well,” Fed Chair Janet L. Yellen said in a news conference after the announcement.

The Fed left its plan for interest rate increases essentially unchanged, expecting a total of three hikes this year and three more next year.

The Fed’s decision is meant to head off the prospect of rising inflation, which erodes savings and could destabilize the economy. But higher interest rates will also increase the payments made by Americans who borrow money to finance mortgages, auto loans and credit card purchases.

Some argue that, by raising rates too quickly, the Fed risks choking off progress for the poorest Americans just as they dig themselves out of the recession. But others say that a delay risks inflating asset bubbles in the market or letting inflation get out of hand — something market watchers call “falling behind the curve.”

“The Fed still has their foot on the monetary accelerator almost to the floorboard. They have to take that foot off,” said Steven Rick, chief economist at CUNA Mutual Group. “We’re concerned that maybe they are behind the curve.”

Economists have argued that higher rates could also frustrate the ambitious goals of the Trump administration, which aims to spur exports and boost the economy to growth rates not seen in years.

President Trump came into office with sweeping plans for the economy, including slashing corporate taxes, cutting regulations and boosting spending on infrastructure. If these policies materialize, they are likely to boost economic growth and spur inflation, potentially forcing the Fed to hike rates more quickly to keep up.

By raising the cost of borrowing, higher interest rates tend to dampen growth. They also attract investment to the United States, which tends to raise the value of the dollar and make U.S. exports more expensive abroad, complicating Trump's goals.

Yellen said that she didn’t think rate increases would be a point of conflict with the new administration, adding that the Fed would welcome policies from Congress and the White House that would boost productivity and raise the economy’s potential growth.

Yellen said she had met with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and briefly with Trump, adding that the Fed based its policy moves on its own projections, not “speculation” about the administration.

She also commented that business and household sentiment has improved in recent months, but added that most businesses the Fed has talked with are waiting to see what policies materialize from the administration.

In the meantime, the Fed said it has left its plan for rate increases essentially unchanged. Charts showed the median forecast of the members of the Open Market Committee was for its benchmark interest rate to rise to 1.4 percent by the end of this year and 2.1 percent by the end of next year, representing a total of three rate hikes in both 2017 and 2018.

However, charts accompanying the release showed that a few committee members had revised upward their estimates of how much they would likely raise rates, to forecast an additional rate increase in 2017 and 2018. Some also forecast slightly higher estimates for the longer-run interest rate, while some expectations for growth and inflation ticked up.

Nine of the members of the Federal Open Market Committee voted in favor of the rate increase in March; one, Neel Kashkari, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, voted against the measure.

A statement accompanying the release was largely unchanged, although it suggested the Fed is keeping a closer eye on inflation. It said that inflation had increased in recent quarters and was “moving close to the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective” — a change from previous wording that inflation was “still below” the Fed’s longer-run objective.

Investors were well prepared for the move following numerous speeches in which Fed officials telegraphed their decision in previous weeks. Before Wednesday’s announcement, futures markets pointed to a 95 percent probability of the rate hike.

Markets rose after the release of the Fed statement and during Yellen's news conference. The Dow Jones industrial average ended the day up 0.54 percent while the Standard& Poor's 500 index was up 0.84 percent at the closing bell.

An interest rate hike will affect anyone with a home mortgage, car loan, savings account or money in the stock market. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

The Fed has long planned on raising interest rates to a more normal level, after slashing them to nearly zero during the financial crisis and holding them at an ultralow level for years to stimulate a sluggish economy.

The Fed carried out its first rate increase since the global financial crisis in December 2015. But the uncertainty surrounding the U.S. presidential election and persistent threats to global growth, such as a stock market crash in China and Britain’s surprise vote to exit the European Union, persuaded the Fed to delay its second rate increase to December 2016.

Now the Fed appears to be on a steadier path, said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan. “We are at a transition to somewhat more regular increases … I think for now the coast looks clear.”

The Fed has said it will match the pace of rate hikes to the economy’s progress. And in recent months, the U.S. economy has heated up. Although economic growth remains disappointingly low, the unemployment rate has fallen below the Fed’s long-term projections, companies continue to add hundreds of thousands of jobs per month, and a long-absent increase in inflation appears to be just around the corner.

Given these encouraging signs, the Fed is also weighing the best time to begin paring back its massive balance sheet. As the United States sank into the recession, the central bank bought massive amounts of Treasury notes, mortgage-backed securities and other assets to boost lending, expanding its balance sheet from less than $900 billion to about $4.5 trillion. The Fed has tapered off purchases of these assets, but it has not yet started reducing the size of the balance sheet. Officials have argued that the benchmark interest rate should move higher first, in case sales of these assets were to disrupt the economy.

In the news conference, Yellen said the committee had discussed shrinking the balance sheet but had not made any decisions. The Fed would like to have a higher benchmark interest rate and see the economy on a stronger footing before beginning to pare it back, she said.

Over the coming months, the new administration will have a substantial opportunity to influence the Fed's direction through new appointments.

Two positions are open on the seven-member board, and a third will open in early April, as Daniel Tarullo, the Fed’s top financial regulator, steps down. Yellen’s position as Fed chair and Stanley Fischer's position as vice chair are also set to expire next year.

Trump was heavily critical of Yellen during the campaign, accusing her of keeping interest rates low to goose the economy under the Obama administration — accusations Yellen firmly denied. Yet since his inauguration, Trump has withheld commenting on Yellen and the Fed — perhaps out of respect for Fed independence, or out of appreciation for what Yellen’s dovish inclination means for the economy.

“In the next 15 months, it’ll be a very different-looking Federal Reserve board,” said Blu Putnam, CME Group’s chief economist.