Fed Sets Course for Milder Interest-Rate Rise in February
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Fed Sets Course for Milder Interest-Rate Rise in February

Officials could begin weighing whether and when to pause rate increases this spring

Mon, Jan 23, 2023 8:45amGrey Clock 4 min

U.S. Federal Reserve officials are preparing to slow interest-rate increases for the second straight meeting and debate how much higher to raise them after gaining more confidence inflation will ease further this year.

They could begin deliberating at the Jan. 31-Feb. 1 gathering how much more softening in labour demand, spending and inflation they would need to see before pausing rate rises this spring.

In recent public statements and interviews, Fed officials have said slowing the pace of rate increases to a more traditional quarter percentage point would give them more time to assess the impact of their increases so far as they determine where to stop.

Officials called attention to how it takes time for the full effect of higher rates to cool economic activity when they stepped down to a half-point rate rise in December, following four consecutive increases of 0.75 point.

“And that logic is very applicable today,” said Fed Vice Chair Lael Brainard in remarks last week. Raising rates in smaller increments “gives us the ability to absorb more data…and probably better land at a sufficiently restrictive level.”

To combat high inflation last year, the Fed reeled off the most rapid series of rate rises since the early 1980s, raising its benchmark federal-funds rate by 4.25 percentage points. A quarter-point increase next month would bring the rate to a range between 4.5% and 4.75%.

Most Fed officials projected in December the rate would rise to a peak between 5% and 5.25%. That would imply two more quarter-point increases after the likely bump next month. Investors in interest-rate futures markets expect the Fed to make two more quarter-point increases—at the coming meeting and again at the Fed’s subsequent meeting in mid-March, according to CME Group.

The Fed raised rates seven times last year. The likely decision to approve a smaller increase in February reflects officials’ growing confidence that the economy is responding to their efforts to curb demand and bring down inflation.

In recent weeks, government data and business surveys have pointed to a steeper drop-off in manufacturing activity and new orders for service-sector firms as well as a pullback in consumer spending on goods.

The central bank’s rate increases are aimed at slowing inflation by reducing demand, “and there is ample evidence that this is exactly what is going on in the business sector,” Fed governor Christopher Waller, an early and vocal advocate for aggressive rate rises last year, said on Friday. Mr. Waller said he would favour a quarter-point rate rise at the coming meeting.

The Commerce Department is set to release this week the December figures for the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, the personal-consumption expenditures price index. Excluding food and energy prices, the so-called core PCE index likely rose 4.5% from a year earlier and at a 3.1% three-month annualised rate in December, Ms. Brainard said.

Officials could use their post meeting statement on Feb. 1 to indicate they expect to continue raising rates as they probe where to pause. But they are unlikely to provide precise guidance because coming decisions will depend heavily on new data about the economy.

Some have also suggested that even if they hold rates steady this summer, they will indicate they remain more likely to lift rates than to cut them. After the Fed pauses, “we’ll need to remain flexible and raise rates further if changes in the economic outlook or financial conditions call for it,” said Dallas Fed President Lorie Logan in a recent speech.

At the coming meeting, officials could deliberate two important questions: How long does it take for the full effects of the Fed’s rate rises to influence hiring and overall economic demand? And how much could inflation slow due to other factors such as easing supply-chain bottlenecks or lower costs of fuel and other commodities?

Some could call for delaying any pause if the economy doesn’t weaken much in the months ahead. They think the time between when the Fed raises rates and when they slow the economy is relatively short and the economy will soon feel the worst of any policy-induced slowdown.

Others could argue for a somewhat earlier pause, believing the effects take longer to play out or could be more potent.

Divisions have surfaced. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said recently he would prefer a larger half-point rate increase at the coming meeting because he doesn’t think rates are high enough to thoroughly beat inflation. “You’d probably have to get over 5% to say with a straight face that we’ve got the right level,” he said in an interview. “Why not go to where we’re supposed to go?…Why stall and not quite get to that level?”

Several of his colleagues have argued for greater flexibility to see if the easing of pandemic- and war-related disruptions brings inflation down more rapidly. As evidence builds that higher rates are working as intended, “why would we try to…really put the clamps down on the economy and really risk losing the good things we have going, like the labor market?” Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker said last week. “I just don’t see doing that.”

Fed officials have long expected inflation to fall as supply-chain bottlenecks and commodity-market disruptions eased, but inflation instead rose through the first half of 2022 before moving sideways, according to the Commerce Department’s gauge.

Inflation has declined over the past three months due largely to falling fuel prices and prices of goods, such as used cars. There are signs soaring rents and other housing costs are set to cool notably amid a sharp slowdown in demand, though that isn’t expected to show up in official inflation measures until later this year.

As a result, Fed Chair Jerome Powell and several colleagues have shifted their focus recently toward a narrower subset of labor-intensive services by excluding prices for food, energy, shelter and goods. Inflation in that category has been around 4.4% on both a 12- and three-month basis, up from around 2.3% on average between 2010 and 2019.

Officials believe that category could reveal whether higher wage costs are passing through to consumer prices.

If services inflation is high because paychecks are rising in lockstep with prices, as occurred during the 1970s, then Fed officials would want to see hiring slow more.

But if price increases for services such as restaurant meals, car insurance and airfares instead reflect the ripple, or “pass-through,” effects of some of the global dislocations that are now reversing, services inflation might moderate faster and without as significant a weakening of labor markets.

The recent inflation slowdown, together with the lagging impact of the Fed’s rate rises that could continue to slow the economy, “may provide some reassurance that we are not currently experiencing a 1970s-style wage-price spiral,” said Ms. Brainard.

Fed officials last month revised higher their projections for inflation this year in part due to fears that wage growth was running too high. Signs since then that wage growth is slowing could weigh prominently in the debate over how soon to pause.

Officials will have two more months of several widely watched economic indicators, including on hiring and inflation, before their March 21-22 meeting. They pay close attention to a detailed measure of worker compensation called the employment-cost index, which is set for release on Jan. 31.

The report could offer further confirmation that wage growth slowed at the end of last year.


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Nothing stays these brokers from the swift completion of their appointed showings

Sun, Dec 3, 2023 3 min
What is the worst weather you have ever had to contend with while showing a home?

Justin Fox, broker/owner, Re/Max Professionals, Cottage Grove, Minn.

In the summer of 2011, I was driving some buyers—a mother from out of town with her two young daughters, each under 6—to look at homes. The first two showings were uneventful, but as we headed to the third, we encountered a giant wall cloud on the road. I see wall clouds all the time, but for those not familiar with them, it’s a giant tower of clouds, and it’s very dark and ominous-looking, so it can be scary. My buyer, who claimed to have been some sort of weather watcher, started freaking out, saying things like, “That’s a wall cloud! It’s dangerous! We’re going to have a tornado!” That in turn caused the daughters to start screaming and crying hysterically. They were kicking so much in the back that they caused the threading of my leather seat to come loose. I did my best to calm them down, but then the torrential rain and thunder started, and that led to more screaming from the kids. Thank God we made it to the next house within 10 minutes. I pulled my car into the garage to avoid the hail, and we sheltered in the basement for 25 minutes until it lightened up outside. Then we went on with our showings like nothing ever happened.

Victoria Rong Kennedy, associate broker, the Corcoran Group, New York, N.Y.

I wouldn’t say this was the worst weather, but it was definitely the weirdest. On June 7, 2023, I had three private showings lined up at 2:30 p.m., 3 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to show my listing on the Upper East Side, which was a duplex penthouse with three terraces listed for $3.3 million. That morning, Canadian wildfire smoke was blowing through the sky of Manhattan. They were telling everyone on TV and radio to stay home all day, and I kept watching my emails and texts, hoping that all three groups of buyers would cancel their showings, but no one did. By 1:30 p.m., the sky was really dark. There was almost no visibility, but, still, there were no cancellations. At 2 p.m., I searched for an old Covid mask, put it on and walked out like a hero to go on the combat field. I could barely see anything a half block away, but I walked 11 blocks and two avenues and managed to get to the building. Well, all three groups of buyers and their brokers showed up on time. We all chatted about how strange the weather was. We put our masks back on when we stood on the living room terrace, which overlooks Billionaires’ Row, but we had no visibility. The sky was red and black, and all we could see was a small circle of light in the sky. It looked like the moon behind heavy clouds. It was like a scene from a movie.

Jeffrey Decatur, broker associate, Re/Max Capital, Latham, N.Y.

Living in upstate New York, I have experienced all kinds of bad weather—snow so deep it was up to my thighs and rain so hard that I wished my shower had that much pressure. However, the worst took place in April 2017, when I was showing a home in Waterford, N.Y., a suburb of Albany. It was during a late-season blizzard that came on fast, and there had to be about 2 feet of snow. The home had a normal-size driveway, but it was a foreclosure and was not shoveled. So, my client and I trekked up the crunchy, snowy driveway and eventually got into the house. As we were walking around, complaining about the Arctic blast and blizzard, I heard the sound of babbling water. I thought it was a fountain, so my buyer and I continued to walk around the house. As we moved toward the garage and family room, the babbling got louder, and as we headed for the basement, we saw that the pipes had frozen. The basement ceiling had fallen, and water was pouring in from the ceiling and the walls. The floor had about 3 inches of water and ice. I called the listing agent and left a message, but I couldn’t just leave the water running, so I waded through the freezing cold water in the basement and turned the water off. I didn’t really think that through, because I was drenched and then had to make my way back through the house and out into the blizzard again. When I opened the front door, I nearly froze immediately, and by the time I got to the end of the porch, I was crunchy and icy. When I got to my car, parked at the end of the driveway, my hair was frozen to my face, and I could barely bend my legs or feel my hands. I was walking like the Tin Man. It took me several hours to thaw out.

——Edited from interviews


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