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Fed keeps interest rates unchanged, gives no hints on timing of future hike

Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen in a recent speech on the economy.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

Federal Reserve officials, concluding their latest policy meeting Wednesday, left interest rates unchanged and gave no clear signal of a rate increase in June.

The Fed’s assessment of the American economy was mixed. Officials contrasted the relatively strong labor market to the slowing growth in the overall economy, which has been hampered by sluggish business investment and exports.

The Fed expects “economic activity will expand at a moderate pace and labor market indicators will continue to strengthen,” according to a statement released after the two-day meeting. The policy statement was adopted by a 9-1 vote, with Esther L. George, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, dissenting again.

Fed officials noted that although household income and confidence measures looked positive, consumer spending, which has been the main engine of economic growth, had weakened since their last policy meeting in mid-March.

In the eyes of analysts, the Fed’s new statement made a significant change in deleting a previous warning about risks from the global economic and financial developments that had roiled markets earlier this year. And some took that as an indication that the central bank could raise rates as early as June.

“With stock markets almost back to record highs, commodity prices rebounding, the dollar and corporate bond yields down sharply and incoming data indicating that China’s economic growth accelerated in the first quarter, it would have been difficult for the [Fed] to keep that language,” said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics. “The omission of the warning about global risks leaves the door open to a June rate hike, but whether the Fed follows through will depend on what happens in financial markets over the next six weeks.”

The decision by the central bank to stand pat on its benchmark interest rate, currently between 1/4% and 1/2%, had been universally expected. Fed Chair Janet L. Yellen had recently voiced concerns about the inflation outlook and uncertainties in the global economic situation, which she viewed as important factors warranting a gradual pace of increase in interest rates.

While job growth has been resilient, measures of consumer spending, business investment and housing activity have been disappointing in recent weeks. First-quarter economic growth, when reported Thursday, is expected to show a paltry 1% or so increase at an annual rate, similar to the fourth-quarter performance.

The Fed in December raised its benchmark short-term interest rate by a quarter point after keeping it near zero for seven years. Since then, amid slowing global growth and volatile financial markets, Fed officials have reduced their estimate of rate increases to just two more for this year.

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