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Trump’s trade fight is making life difficult for the Fed

The Federal Reserve is increasing interest rates to the highest amount in a decade. Find out how big a deal it is, and whether it'll affect you. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

The Federal Reserve is all but certain to raise the U.S. benchmark interest rate Wednesday to a range of 1.75 to 2 percent, a move that will make credit card, mortgage and business loans a bit more expensive. But what the Fed does after this week depends largely on the economy — and President Trump’s trade fight.

The traditional economic playbook says Fed Chairman Jerome H. Powell should be increasing interest rates several more times this year and next to get rates back above 3 percent, a more normal level given that the U.S. economy looks very healthy by most measures.

There are a record number of job openings, unemployment is the lowest since 2000, growth is picking up, and even inflation finally appears to be rising to the Fed’s preferred level. Under normal circumstances, the traditional playbook says that by raising rates Powell and his team could work to ward off a potential spike in inflation or another harmful bubble.

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But these are not normal circumstances: Trump is promising to turn U.S. trade policy on its head, putting hefty tariffs on some of the nation’s biggest trading partners and closest allies. He has vowed to enact more tariffs — even once threatening to choke trade off entirely — unless they make major concessions.

World leaders and business executives are still trying to figure out how to react to Trump’s trade agenda — and still wondering whether he’s really willing to start a full-blown trade war, which nearly all economists predict would hurt overall economic growth.

Powell and his Fed colleagues have a difficult decision to make: If they think the economy will stay on sure footing despite the trade skirmish, then the ongoing “normalization” of interest rates makes sense, especially after a decade of historically low U.S. interest rates as the Fed boosted the post-recession recovery (and stock market). But if Fed officials think there’s a coming trade war that will crimp economic growth, they may want to put rate hikes on pause or at least slow them down.

The person arguably having to make the toughest calculation about just how far Trump will go is Powell. The Fed is an independent agency, but Powell was appointed by Trump and will probably get blamed for any economic or stock market hiccups.

Here’s are the key questions on which investors and business leaders will be looking for the Fed to give clarity Wednesday:

1 or 2 more hikes in 2018? A slim majority of economists are now predicting two more increases after June for a total of four rate hikes in 2018 as the economy continues to show signs of strength. The United States hasn’t had a year with four increases since 2006.

According to the Fed’s meeting minutes from May, officials were still divided over whether to do one more hike or two. Analysts will get more clues about which way they’re leaning Wednesday, both in the Fed's statement and when Powell takes questions at an afternoon news conference — remarks certain to be scrutinized with a Talmudic intensity.

What’s next for the economy? The Fed will also release its latest economic projections for 2018 and 2019. The predictions on growth, inflation and other economic trends are closely watched and highly influential, as they’re put together by some of the nation’s most respected economists drawing on mass volumes of data. The latest projections are not expected to change much from the last ones in March, when the Fed lifted its growth expectation to 2.7 percent this year and 2.4 percent in 2019, largely because of Trump’s tax cuts.

Harsher warnings to Trump on trade? While some Fed officials have been vocal about their distaste for the president’s tariffs, Powell has stayed mostly mum about the issue. If he comes out strongly on Wednesday, it’s yet another powerful voice telling Trump to cool down. Fed officials are typically loath to weigh in on economic policy outside their area, part of a traditional separation between the central bank and the federal government.

But some officials have already joined the global chorus of economic and business leaders warning Trump not to tip the world into a full-blown trade war. “If the conflict increases, there will be less growth, more inflation and lower quality of life all over the world,” said Fed official John Williams, who is soon to take over as head of the New York Fed, in April.

How ‘hot’ will the Fed let inflation get? Investors are also looking for a better indication of how high the Fed will let inflation go before it feels compelled to raise interest rates faster. The Fed’s current target is 2 percent inflation. The United States is now close to hitting that goal, but various Fed officials have indicated that it would be acceptable to overshoot the target modestly in the coming months. Wall Street is wondering if "modestly” means 2.2 percent or more like 2.6 percent.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Fed was expected to hike interest rates from 1.75 to 2 percent. The Fed is expected to hike rates from a range of 1.5 to 1.75 percent to a range of 1.75 to 2 percent.


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