In what appears to be a new normal, the Federal Reserve has indicated that interest rates are set to remain "higher for longer". This implies that even after the conclusion of the current rate-hiking cycle and the initiation of rate reductions, interest rates are expected to stay above the Fed’s target necessary for sustaining economic growth with a 2% inflation rate. However, the exact duration of this "longer" period has been a subject of intense debate among investors regarding the future of the Fed’s policy.
On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve provided additional clarity on its stance, suggesting that this elevated interest rate environment could persist for at least three more years. This announcement came alongside its decision to maintain rates within a 5.25%-5.5% range, marking a 22-year high. Along with this decision, the Fed also released updated economic forecasts for interest rates, unemployment, growth, and inflation. These forecasts indicate that most Fed officials anticipate one more rate hike this year, with further adjustments expected in 2024, 2025, and 2026.
Federal Reserve Interest Rates: Higher For Longer?
The most recent discussions surrounding the Federal Reserve highlight the consensus that interest rates are set to remain "higher for longer." This suggests that even after the central bank concludes its current cycle of rate increases and starts to lower rates, these rates are expected to stay above what the Fed believes would be required to maintain economic growth with 2% inflation.
Unraveling the ‘Longer’ in ‘Higher for Longer’
The definition of "longer" is a crucial part of investor debates about the future of the Fed’s policy. This Wednesday, however, the central bank provided further clarification, pointing to a timeline of at least three more years. This accompanied its decision to maintain rates within the 5.25%-5.5% range, a high point not seen in 22 years. In addition, the Fed released updated economic forecasts, including those for interest rates, unemployment, growth, and inflation.
Deciphering the ‘Dot Plot’
The ‘dot plot’, a tool showcasing officials’ projections for rates in the upcoming years, indicated that most Fed officials believe one more rate increase will be necessary this year. More notably, the modifications for 2024, 2025, and the new outlook for 2026 provided deeper insights into the central bank’s vision for the future. Since June, the Fed has removed 0.50% worth of rate cuts for both 2024 and 2025, and suggested that rates would end 2026 higher than where they are anticipated to settle over the longer run.
The Fed’s ‘Estimates’, Not ‘Plans’
It’s important to remember, as Fed Chair Jerome Powell emphasized on Wednesday, that these forecasts are merely estimates, rather than definitive plans. "It’s a culmination of individual forecasts from 19 people, and then what you’re seeing are the medians," Powell stated. While these forecasts may not provide a clear path for the Fed’s benchmark policy rate, they do offer suggestions about the trajectory of the economy and what will be needed to guide it.
The Importance of Real Rates
The Fed predicts higher real rates – interest rates minus inflation – will be necessary to slow an economy that is growing more than expected. Even though the headline on Wednesday hinted at one more rate hike this year, the Fed’s reduced inflation outlook indicates officials believe even higher real rates will be needed in 2023.
Jerome Powell remarked on Wednesday, "It’s a real rate that will matter and that needs to be sufficiently restrictive." However, he also mentioned that understanding when rates are "sufficiently restrictive" can prove elusive, stating, "It’s not something you can arrive at with confidence in a model or in various estimates."
The Federal Reserve’s current stance on maintaining "higher for longer" interest rates is a significant factor for investors to consider. It reflects the Fed’s cautious approach to managing economic growth and inflation. While the exact timeline and rate levels remain estimates, they provide valuable insights into the Fed’s economic outlook. The emphasis on real rates underscores the Fed’s focus on balancing economic growth with inflation. However, as Powell stated, the exact point of sufficient restriction remains uncertain, reminding investors of the inherent unpredictability of economic forecasting.