WASHINGTON (AP) - The Federal Reserve raised its key interest rate Wednesday for the 11th time in 17 months as part of its ongoing drive to curb inflation. But it provided little guidance about when — or whether — it might hike rates again.
Wednesday's move raised the Fed’s benchmark short-term rate from roughly 5.1% to 5.3% — its highest level since 2001. Coming on top of its previous hikes, the Fed’s latest action could lead to further increases in the costs of mortgages,auto loans, credit cards and business borrowing.
Speaking at a news conference, Fed Chair Jerome Powell was noncommittal about any expectations for future rate hikes. Since it began raising rates in March 2022, the Fed has often telegraphed its upcoming action. This time, though, Powell said the Fed's policymakers may or may not raise rates again at their next meeting in September.
"It is certainly possible that we will raise rates again at the September meeting," he said. "And I would also say it’s possible that we would choose to hold steady at that meeting."
Powell sent a mixed message about whether he thinks the Fed will eventually need to further raise rates or instead just keep the current level of rates in place for a prolonged period.
"It was about as clear as mud, and I think that was the point," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at accounting giant KPMG. "They don’t want to declare victory too soon. They know inflation moves in fits and starts."
Powell acknowledged that the economy has proved surprisingly resilient despite the Fed's rapid rate hikes, with growth continuing and companies still adding jobs. He also revealed that the Fed’s staff economists no longer foresee a recession. In April, the minutes of the central bank’s March meeting had said that staff economists envisioned a "mild" recession later this year.
U.S. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell speaks during a news conference following a meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) at the headquarters of the Federal Reserve on June 14, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Ge
And he said he still thinks that a "soft landing" — in which inflation would fall back to the Fed's 2% target, without causing a deep recession — is still possible.
"My base case is that we will be able to achieve inflation moving back down to our target without the kind of really significant downturn that results in high levels of job losses," the Fed chair said. "We do have a shot at a soft landing."
Though inflation has reached its slowest pace in two years, Wednesday’s hike reflects the concern of Fed officials that the economy is still growing too fast for inflation to fall back to their 2% target. With consumer confidence hitting its highest level in two years, Americans keep spending — crowding airplanes, traveling overseas and flocking to concerts and movie theaters. Most crucially, businesses keep hiring.
Year-over-year inflation in June was 3%, according to the government, down sharply from a peak of 9.1% in June 2022. Yet a "core" inflation measure that is preferred by the Fed, which excludes volatile food and energy costs, was still up 4.6% in May from a year earlier.
Powell said he welcomed, in particular, a milder-than-expected report on inflation for June. But he said additional such data would be needed to show that inflation is declining in a sustained way.
"We’re going to be careful about taking too much signal from a single reading," he said.
The key question swirling around the Fed is whether Wednesday’s increase will or won’t be its last. Powell made clear that the fight against inflation isn’t over. The Fed’s rate hikes, he said, have "not been restrictive enough for long enough" to exert their full effect.
"We want core inflation to be coming down," Powell said. "Core inflation is still pretty elevated. And so we think we need to stay on task."
He stressed that the Fed's policymakers will assess a range of incoming economic data in determining what action, if any, to take at their next meeting. When the officials last met in June, they signaled that they expected to raise rates twice more. By the time they meet again Sept. 19-20, Powell noted, they will have much more data in hand: Two more inflation reports, two reports on hiring and unemployment and updated figures on consumer spending and wages.
Some economists think the Fed might decide to forgo a rate increase in September before weighing a possible hike at its meeting in November.
In recent weeks, several Fed officials have said they worry that the still-brisk pace of job growth will lead workers to demand higher pay to make up for two years of inflationary prices. Sharp wage gains can perpetuate inflation if companies respond by raising prices for their customers.
At the same time, the steady easing of inflation pressures has lifted hopes that the Fed can bring down inflation without a recession.
Durable consumer spending has been a key driver of growth. Many Americans still have savings stemming from the pandemic, when the government distributed stimulus checks and people saved by spending less on travel, restaurants and entertainment.
And hiring has remained healthy, with employers having added 209,000 jobs in June and the jobless rate reaching an ultra-low 3.6%. That’s about where it was when the Fed began raising rates in March 2022 — a sign of economic resilience that almost no one had foreseen.
Some Fed officials, including Christopher Waller, an outspoken member of its Board of Governors, and Lorie Logan, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, have said they think the cumulative effects of the previous rate hikes have already been baked into the economy. With inflation still above the Fed’s target, they think additional hikes may be needed to further slow price pressures.
Some analysts caution that the drop in year-over-year inflation from roughly 9% to 3% was the relatively easy part. Getting it down to the Fed’s 2% target will be harder and take longer.
Other experts say they think the recent mild inflation readings can be sustained. Rental cost increases, which have already fallen, should drop further as more apartment buildings are completed.
Though the Fed began tightening credit before central banks in many other developed countries did, most others are now following suit. The European Central Bank is expected to announce its own quarter-point rate hike on Thursday. Though inflation has declined in the 20 countries that use the euro, it remains higher there than in the United States.
The Bank of Japan is expected to keep its policies unchanged when it meets next week even though prices there are creeping higher after roughly two decades of declining prices. The Bank of England has been among the most aggressive in Europe, having raised its key rate last month by a half-point to a 15-year high of 5%. Year-over-year inflation in the U.K. reached a painful 8.7% in May.