Fed Raises Interest Rates by 0.75 Percentage Point for Third Straight Meeting
Officials project short-term rates will rise above 4.25% by year’s end, signal further large increases at coming meetings
Officials project short-term rates will rise above 4.25% by year’s end, signal further large increases at coming meetings
WASHINGTON—The Federal Reserve approved its third consecutive interest-rate rise of 0.75 percentage point and signalled additional large increases were likely even though they are raising the risk of recession.
Fed officials voted unanimously to lift their benchmark federal-funds rate to a range between 3% and 3.25%, a level last seen in early 2008. Nearly all of them expect to raise rates to between 4% and 4.5% by the end of this year, according to new projections released Wednesday, which would call for sizeable rate increases at policy meetings in November and December.
“We have got to get inflation behind us. I wish there were a painless way to do that. There isn’t,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said at a news conference after the rate decision.
Stock markets tumbled after a volatile trading day. The broad S&P 500 index fell 66 points, or 1.7%, to 3789.93. The yield on the two-year U.S. Treasury note settled around 3.993%, according to Tradeweb, from 3.962% Tuesday, nearly a 15-year high. Just after the Fed’s announcement, it had touched as high as 4.12%. Meanwhile, yields on longer-term Treasurys fell, since higher rates could lead to a sharper economic downturn.
Officials projected that rate rises will continue into 2023, with most expecting the fed-funds rate to rest around 4.6% by the end of next year. That was up from 3.8% in their projections this past June.
Analysts said they hadn’t expected the Fed to show quite so high an endpoint for the rate. Given how persistently elevated inflation has been, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see them go even higher than what they’ve written down—say, to 5%,” said Ellen Meade, an economist at Duke University who is a former senior adviser at the Fed.
The projections showed considerable divergence over what might happen after next year. Around one third of officials expect to hold the fed-funds rate above 4% through 2024, while others anticipate more rate cuts.
“There is a message here that rates will stay higher for longer, and this message is really sticking with market participants,” said Blerina Uruci, U.S. economist at T. Rowe Price.
Even though the economy isn’t yet showing the full effects of Fed rate increases, “all of this volatility and uncertainty makes it hard for businesses to make plans. There are some benefits to having this hiking of interest rates over and done with sooner,” she said.
One year ago, the Fed was signalling rates might stay near zero for another year, and it was purchasing Treasury and mortgage securities to provide additional stimulus. Officials misjudged the strength of the economy’s rebound from the pandemic and how high inflation would rise.
They are now raising rates at the most rapid pace since the 1980s and have approved increases at five consecutive policy meetings, starting in March when they lifted the fed-funds rate from near zero. Until June, the Fed hadn’t raised rates by 0.75 point since 1994.
Officials made a second such increase in July but signalled more concerns about overdoing rate rises, which, together with investor optimism about how quickly inflation might decline, fuelled a market rally.
The rally threatened to undercut the Fed’s steps to slow the economy and weaken price pressures, and Mr. Powell delivered a blunt speech last month in Jackson Hole, Wyo., designed to underscore the Fed’s commitment to reducing inflation.
To limit further confusion on Wednesday, Mr. Powell prefaced his answers to reporters’ questions with a disclaimer. “My main message has not changed at all since Jackson Hole,” he said.
Throughout his press conference, “what Chair Powell was trying to do was keep to a minimum the biggest risks to getting inflation to come down—which was market participants getting ahead of themselves and actually easing financial conditions,” said Vincent Reinhart, chief economist at Dreyfus and Mellon.
The higher the Fed raises rates, the greater the risk that it will go too far, tipping the economy into a recession. But Mr. Powell repeatedly emphasised the need to bring inflation down now to avoid an even worse recession later.
“No one knows whether this process will lead to a recession or, if so, how significant that recession will be,” he said. “We certainly haven’t given up the idea that we can have a relatively modest increase in unemployment. Nonetheless, we need to complete this task.”
The economy slowed in May and June but appeared to regain momentum through the summer. Mr. Powell said Wednesday that the Fed wanted to see more evidence that the labor market was cooling off. The economy has added an average of 380,000 jobs monthly over the past six months, far above the rate of about 50,000 that economists think would keep the unemployment rate steady.
Meanwhile, inflation readings haven’t worsened this summer but also haven’t shown the kind of improvement that the Fed and many economists have wanted to see. Falling gasoline prices caused overall inflation to ease in July and August, but climbing housing costs and prices for services such as dental and hospital visits, haircuts and car repairs have kept inflation elevated.
The consumer-price index rose 8.3% in August from a year earlier, down from June’s increase of 9.1%, a four-decade high. Mr. Powell pointed to how inflation using a separate gauge has consistently run at a pace of 4.5% or higher, despite diminishing supply-chain problems.
“That’s not where we expected or wanted to be,” he said. “Our expectation has been that we would begin to see inflation come down largely because of supply-side healing. By now we would have thought that we would have seen some of that. We haven’t.”
Fed officials projected the unemployment rate rising to 4.4% next year, from 3.7% in August and 3.5% in July. Historically, an increase of that much in that span has coincided with a recession.
Several analysts, including Ms. Meade and Ms. Uruci, said they found it implausible that Fed officials projected they might bring inflation down to 3% next year and 2% by 2025 without doing more damage to the labor market.
At the same time, Mr. Powell appeared to be more candid about the risks. “He is using words that are open to recession,” said Ms. Meade.
The U.S. mortgage market has been slammed by the prospect of tighter money, and the average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage jumped to 6.25% last week from 6.01% the week before, the Mortgage Bankers Association said Wednesday. That was the highest level since October 2008. Applications for loans to purchase homes were down 30% from the same week last year.
Mr. Powell said it was likely the housing market, which boomed during the pandemic, driving prices to new highs, would weaken significantly. Mr. Reinhart said the admission was notable because the economy has always entered a recession when the housing sector has contracted.
“They want to convey that policy will be firm and that the economy will suffer as a result. It’s hard for them to say how much it will suffer,” said Mr. Reinhart.
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Food prices continue to rise at a rapid pace, surprising central banks and pressuring debt-laden governments
LONDON—Fresh out of an energy crisis, Europeans are facing a food-price explosion that is changing diets and forcing consumers across the region to tighten their belts—literally.
This is happening even though inflation as a whole is falling thanks to lower energy prices, presenting a new policy challenge for governments that deployed billions in aid last year to keep businesses and households afloat through the worst energy crisis in decades.
New data on Wednesday showed inflation in the U.K. fell sharply in April as energy prices cooled, following a similar pattern around Europe and in the U.S. But food prices were 19.3% higher than a year earlier.
The continued surge in food prices has caught central bankers off guard and pressured governments that are still reeling from the cost of last year’s emergency support to come to the rescue. And it is pressuring household budgets that are also under strain from rising borrowing costs.
In France, households have cut their food purchases by more than 10% since the invasion of Ukraine, while their purchases of energy have fallen by 4.8%.
In Germany, sales of food fell 1.1% in March from the previous month, and were down 10.3% from a year earlier, the largest drop since records began in 1994. According to the Federal Information Centre for Agriculture, meat consumption was lower in 2022 than at any time since records began in 1989, although it said that might partly reflect a continuing shift toward more plant-based diets.
Food retailers’ profit margins have contracted because they can’t pass on the entire price increases from their suppliers to their customers. Markus Mosa, chief executive of the Edeka supermarket chain, told German media that the company had stopped ordering products from several large suppliers because of rocketing prices.
A survey by the U.K.’s statistics agency earlier this month found that almost three-fifths of the poorest 20% of households were cutting back on food purchases.
“This is an access problem,” said Ludovic Subran, chief economist at insurer Allianz, who previously worked at the United Nations World Food Program. “Total food production has not plummeted. This is an entitlement crisis.”
Food accounts for a much larger share of consumer spending than energy, so a smaller rise in prices has a greater impact on budgets. The U.K.’s Resolution Foundation estimates that by the summer, the cumulative rise in food bills since 2020 will have amounted to 28 billion pounds, equivalent to $34.76 billion, outstripping the rise in energy bills, estimated at £25 billion.
“The cost of living crisis isn’t ending, it is just entering a new phase,” Torsten Bell, the research group’s chief executive, wrote in a recent report.
Food isn’t the only driver of inflation. In the U.K., the core rate of inflation—which excludes food and energy—rose to 6.8% in April from 6.2% in March, its highest level since 1992. Core inflation was close to its record high in the eurozone during the same month.
Still, Bank of England Gov. Andrew Bailey told lawmakers Tuesday that food prices now constitute a “fourth shock” to inflation after the bottlenecks that jammed supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic, the rise in energy prices that accompanied Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and surprisingly tight labor markets.
Europe’s governments spent heavily on supporting households as energy prices soared. Now they have less room to borrow given the surge in debt since the pandemic struck in 2020.
Some governments—including those of Italy, Spain and Portugal—have cut sales taxes on food products to ease the burden on consumers. Others are leaning on food retailers to keep their prices in check. In March, the French government negotiated an agreement with leading retailers to refrain from price rises if it is possible to do so.
Retailers have also come under scrutiny in Ireland and a number of other European countries. In the U.K., lawmakers have launched an investigation into the entire food supply chain “from farm to fork.”
“Yesterday I had the food producers into Downing Street, and we’ve also been talking to the supermarkets, to the farmers, looking at every element of the supply chain and what we can do to pass on some of the reduction in costs that are coming through to consumers as fast as possible,” U.K. Treasury Chief Jeremy Hunt said during The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit in London.
The government’s Competition and Markets Authority last week said it would take a closer look at retailers.
“Given ongoing concerns about high prices, we are stepping up our work in the grocery sector to help ensure competition is working well,” said Sarah Cardell, who heads the CMA.
Some economists expect that added scrutiny to yield concrete results, assuming retailers won’t want to tarnish their image and will lean on their suppliers to keep prices down.
“With supermarkets now more heavily under the political spotlight, we think it more likely that price momentum in the food basket slows,” said Sanjay Raja, an economist at Deutsche Bank.
It isn’t entirely clear why food prices have risen so fast for so long. In world commodity markets, which set the prices received by farmers, food prices have been falling since April 2022. But raw commodity costs are just one part of the final price. Consumers are also paying for processing, packaging, transport and distribution, and the size of the gap between the farm and the dining table is unusually wide.
The BOE’s Bailey thinks one reason for the bank having misjudged food prices is that food producers entered into longer-term but relatively expensive contracts with fertilizer, energy and other suppliers around the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in their eagerness to guarantee availability at a time of uncertainty.
But as the pressures being placed on retailers suggest, some policy makers suspect that an increase in profit margins may also have played a role. Speaking to lawmakers, Bailey was wary of placing any blame on food suppliers.
“It’s a story about rebuilding margins that were squeezed in the early part of last year,” he said.
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