Federal Reserve Signals a Shift Away From Pandemic Support

Federal Reserve Signals a Shift Away From Pandemic Support

The Fed said it could soon slow its large-scale purchases of government-backed bonds and indicated it might raise interest rates in 2022.

Federal Reserve officials indicated on Wednesday that they expect to soon slow the asset purchases they have been using to support the economy and predicted they might raise interest rates next year, sending a clear signal that policymakers are preparing to curtail full-blast monetary help as the business environment snaps back from the pandemic shock.

Jerome H. Powell, the Fed’s chair, said during a news conference that the central bank’s bond purchases, which have propped up the economy since the depths of the pandemic downturn, “still have a use, but it’s time for us to begin to taper them.”

That unusual candor came for a reason: Fed officials have been trying to fully prepare markets for their first move away from enormous economic support. Policymakers could announce a slowdown to their monthly government-backed securities purchases as soon as November, the Fed’s next meeting, and the program may come to a complete end by the middle of next year, Mr. Powell later said. He added that there was “very broad support” on the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee for such a plan.

Nearly 20 months after the coronavirus pandemic first shook America, the Fed is trying to guide an economy in which business has rebounded as consumers spend strongly, helped along by repeated government stimulus checks and other benefits.

Yet the virus persists and many adults remain unvaccinated, preventing a full return to normal activity. External threats also loom, including tremors in China’s real estate market that have put financial markets on edge. In the United States, partisan wrangling could imperil future government spending plans or even cause a destabilizing delay to a needed debt ceiling increase.

Mr. Powell and his colleagues are navigating those crosscurrents at a time when inflation is high and the labor market, while healing, remains far from full strength. They are weighing when and how to reduce their monetary policy support, hoping to prevent economic or financial market overheating while keeping the recovery on track.

“They want to start the exit,” said Priya Misra, global head of rates strategy at T.D. Securities. “They’re putting the markets on notice.”

Investors took the latest update in stride. The S&P 500 ended up 1 percent for the day, slightly higher than it was before the Fed’s policy statement was released, and yields on government bonds ticked lower, suggesting that investors didn’t see a reason to radically change their expectations for interest rates.

The Fed has been holding its policy rate at rock bottom since March 2020 and is buying $120 billion in government-backed bonds each month, policies that work together to keep many types of borrowing cheap. The combination has fueled lending and spending and helped to foster stronger economic growth, while also contributing to record highs in the stock market.

But now, officials believe the time has come to tiptoe away from such full-fledged support. Late last year, policymakers laid out a lower bar for slowing purchases than for lifting interest rates. They simply wanted to see “substantial further progress” toward their goals of stable inflation and maximum employment before pulling back on asset buying. When it comes to lifting rates, officials indicated they would like to see inflation sustainably at their target and a labor market that is fully healed.

Slowing their asset purchases in the near-term could give the Fed more room to be more nimble in the future. Policymakers have signaled that they want to stop buying securities before moving interest rates above zero.

But Mr. Powell has tried to clearly separate the two decisions, signaling that changes to the policy interest rate — the Fed’s more traditional and more powerful tool — are not imminent.

“You’re going to be well away from satisfying the liftoff test when we begin to taper,” he reiterated on Wednesday.

Half of the Fed’s policymakers expect to lift rates from near-zero next year. Officials released a fresh set of economic projections on Wednesday, laying out their predictions for growth, inflation and the funds rate through the end of 2024. Those included the “dot plot” — a set of anonymous individual estimates showing where each of the Fed’s 18 policymakers expect their interest rate to fall at the end of each year.

Nine Fed policymakers penciled in one or more rate increases next year, up from seven when projections were last released in June. This was the first time the Fed has released 2024 projections, and officials expected rates to stand at 1.8 percent at the end of that year.

The projections also penciled in faster price gains in 2021. Inflation has moved sharply higher in recent months, elevated by supply-chain disruptions and other quirks tied to the pandemic. The Fed’s preferred metric, the personal consumption expenditures index, climbed 4.2 percent in July from a year earlier.

Fed officials expected inflation to average 4.2 percent in the final quarter of 2021 before falling to 2.2 percent in 2022, the new forecasts showed.

Central bankers are trying to predict how inflation will evolve in the coming months and years. Some officials worry that it will remain elevated, fueled by strong consumption and newfound corporate pricing power as consumers come to expect and accept higher costs.

Others fret that the same factors pushing prices higher today will lead to uncomfortably low inflation down the road — for instance, used car prices have contributed heavily to the 2021 increase and could fall as demand wanes. Tepid price increases prevailed before the pandemic started, and the same global trends that had been weighing inflation down could once again dominate.

“Inflation expectations are terribly important, we spend a lot of time watching them, and if we did see them moving up in a troubling way” then “we would certainly react to that,” Mr. Powell said. “We don’t really see that now.”

The Fed’s second goal — full employment — also remains elusive. Millions of jobs remain missing compared with before the pandemic, even after months of historically rapid employment gains. Officials want to avoid lifting interest rates to cool off the economy before the labor market has fully healed. It’s difficult to know when that might be, because the economy has never recovered from pandemic-induced lockdowns before.

“The process of reopening the economy is unprecedented, as was the shutdown at the onset of the pandemic,” Mr. Powell said on Wednesday.

Given those uncertainties, the Fed is likely to move cautiously on raising interest rates. And while Mr. Powell teed up a possible November announcement that the Fed would start slowing its bond-buying, even that is subject to change if the economy does not shape up as expected — or if major risks on the horizon materialize.

“The start of tapering would be delayed if the debt ceiling standoff is unresolved and markets are in turmoil,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in a research note following the meeting.

Yet Mr. Powell made clear that the Fed was not equipped to ride to the rescue if lawmakers could not resolve their differences.

“It’s just very important that the debt ceiling be raised in a timely fashion,” Mr. Powell said, adding that “no one should assume the Fed or anyone else can protect markets and the economy in the event of a failure” to “make sure that we do pay those, when they’re due.”

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