The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that it expects faster growth and lower unemployment next year as the U.S. economy strengthens and Congress is likely to enact sweeping tax cuts for businesses and most families. Given how healthy the economy looks, the central bank lifted its benchmark interest rate a quarter point to a range of 1.25 percent to 1.5 percent, a widely expected move.
“At the moment, the U.S. economy is performing well,” Fed Chair Janet L. Yellen said during her final Fed news conference Wednesday afternoon. “There’s less to lose sleep about now than has been true for quite some time.”
The Fed cast the decision as a positive sign of how much momentum the U.S. and global economies have right now as employers keep hiring and families and businesses continue to open their wallets and spend. This is the third rate hike this year and the fifth since the bank cut the rate to nearly zero during the financial crisis.
Unemployment is at the lowest level since 2000, growth is picking up, and inflation remains tame. The Fed also bumped up its expectations for growth this year and next. The economy is on track to expand 2.5 percent this year and in 2018, the Fed now says. It's previous estimate was for a 2.1 percent expansion in 2018. Unemployment is expected to fall even further to below 4 percent in 2018. The tax bill was a key driver of the improved forecast, although the Fed stopped well short of forecasting the 4 percent growth that President Trump has been promising he can deliver.
Yellen, who is stepping down in early February, noted that she was working toward a smooth transition to her successor. President Trump selected Jerome “Jay” Powell, a Fed governor who currently helps decide interest rates, to replace Yellen. “I am confident that [Powell] is as deeply committed as I have been to the Federal Reserve's vital public mission,” Yellen said.
Asked whether the Fed policymakers had considered Trump's massive tax-cut proposal during its policy meeting, Yellen said they had. Fed governors expect a “modest” increase in growth from the tax plan that the Republican-controlled Congress is finalizing, she said, although she warned that “the magnitude and timing of the macroeconomic effects of any tax package remain uncertain.”
“My colleagues sand I are in line with the general expectation among most economists that the type of tax changes that are likely to be enacted would tend to provide some modest lift to GDP growth in the coming years,” Yellen said.
Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC, said, “The long-run growth projection is still 1.8 percent, so given what they’ve seen of the tax bill, they don’t think the package is going to have much impact on long-run growth prospects,”
Stocks ended the day mixed after the Fed news, with the Dow and Nasdaq closing higher and the S&P 500 ending slightly negative.
“The [Fed] statement was as dull as it gets, which is likely what Janet L. Yellen exactly wanted as she passes on the job to Jerome Powell,” said Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst of the Lindsey Group in Virginia.
Despite projecting faster growth next year, the Fed is only anticipating three rate hikes in 2018. Powell is expected to keep the Fed on a slow and steady path to getting rates back to a more normal level of closer to 3 percent. Powell has hinted, however, that he is open to some reforms to bank regulations, telling senators during his confirmation hearing that he thinks the current regulations on Wall Street are "tough enough.”
But Yellen tried to tame expectations that Powell would bring a big transformation on regulation, saying Wednesday that "all of my colleagues" have expressed a "strong commitment to keep in place the core reforms that have produced a strong financial system."
The one regret Yellen has about her tenure is that inflation has remained too low, she said. The Fed projects inflation to finish the year at 1.7 percent. “I want to see it move up to 2 percent,” she said. “There’s work undone there.”
Yellen also addressed the persistently sluggish pace of wage growth even as the unemployment rate has dropped far below what it was when she became chair nearly four years ago. While the Fed anticipates wages are likely to rise faster next year, Yellen said it would be mainly because unemployment is low and businesses are having trouble finding workers, not because of the tax plan.
So far, the rate hikes have not caused any noticeable pain in the economy or markets. But WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez warned that people with a lot of credit card debt will start to feel pinched as rates go up.
“As the interest rates rise, so does the cost of borrowing. Credit card users will feel the impact the earliest, since the rate hike will add another $1.46 billion in finances charges during 2018 alone,” Gonzalez said.
At the news conference Yellen was asked several times about bitcoin, the digital currency that has skyrocketed in value this year and is currently trading at over $16,000 for each coin. She warned Americans to be careful before buying the asset, which can have wild price swings. Bitcoin “is not a stable source of value, and it doesn't constitute legal tender,” she said. “It is a highly speculative asset.”
At one point, Yellen — the first woman to lead the Federal Reserve — was asked if she had any advice or thoughts for women and minorities who see her as a role model. She said that she and her colleagues “would love to” bring in more women and minorities at the central bank, “if we could increase our hiring.” And she lamented that the number of women and minorities pursuing the field of economics is “disproportionately and disturbingly low.”
“I think economics is a terrific field,” Yellen said with a smile, adding that there were many opportunities for economics-related careers and that having a “greater diversity” could have an impact on how we think about the nation's economy.