Fed leaves rates unchanged, acknowledges economy is ‘strong’

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell holds a press conference after the release of the Fed policy decision to leave interest rates unchanged, at the Federal Reserve in Washington, US September 20, 2023.—Reuters 

The Federal Reserve held interest rates steady on Wednesday but left the door open to a further increase in borrowing costs in a policy statement that acknowledged the U.S. economy’s surprising strength, but also nodded to the tighter financial conditions faced by businesses and households.

“Economic activity expanded at a strong pace in the third quarter,” the US central bank said in a policy statement after a two-day meeting in which officials unanimously agreed to leave the benchmark overnight interest rate in the 5.25%-5.50% range where it has been since July.

The language marked an upgrade to the “solid pace” of activity the Fed saw as of its September meeting and followed on recent data that showed US gross domestic product grew at a 4.9% annual rate in the third quarter.

Though markets think the Fed may be done raising its policy rate, with financial conditions tightening on their own through higher market-based interest rates, data pointing to a stronger-than-expected economy and labour market have kept the prospect of another hike on the table.

The Fed’s latest statement noted that with job gains still “strong” and inflation still “elevated,” the central bank continues to consider “the extent of additional policy firming that may be appropriate to return inflation to 2% over time.”

Fed Chair Jerome Powell will hold a press conference at 2:30 p.m. EDT (1830 GMT) to elaborate on the statement and an economic outlook that, so far, has defied expectations of an imminent slowdown.

His words may take on particular importance to investors trying to divine whether the Fed still plans to raise rates again, as most of its officials indicated in a September round of economic projections.

The policy statement itself has become increasingly spare as officials have become less certain about their next move, balancing a sluggish but continuing fall in inflation against a sense the economy is likely to slow in coming months, and concern that pushing too much harder with rate increases could cause it to slow more than needed.

The statement said the Fed was still watching the developing impact of its past rate hikes as it mulled further action, aware of “the lags with which monetary policy affects economic activity and inflation, and economic and financial developments.”

The phrase has been used to indicate a degree of patience in deciding on further rate increases and acknowledge that the full impact of the 5.25 percentage points in rate hikes since March of 2022 has yet to be felt.

Adding to the possible pressure is a rise in market-based interest rates that could further dampen economic growth.

The statement nodded to that possible impact, adding a reference to tighter financial conditions as one of the factors “likely to weigh on economic activity,” with still uncertain effects.

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