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Fed officials expect to keep interest rates unchanged this year — unless economy shifts

Jerome Powell
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell speaks during a March 20 news conference in Washington.
(Susan Walsh / AP)

A majority of Federal Reserve officials last month believed that economic conditions would likely warrant keeping the Fed’s benchmark interest rate unchanged for the rest of this year.

But several officials said their view could shift in either direction based on new data, according to minutes of the meeting released Wednesday.

Weaker growth and lower inflation expectations could prompt the Fed to cut rates, while faster growth and rising inflation expectations could prompt it to resume raising rates.

The minutes reflect the thinking of Fed officials at their March 19-20 meeting, which concluded with a decision to leave the central bank’s key interest rate unchanged at 2.25% to 2.5% — a pause that began in January. The Fed also trimmed its outlook for rate hikes this year from two to none.

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Some economists believe the Fed could actually start cutting rates later this year if the economy slows further.

President Trump said last week that he wanted the Fed to start cutting rates. Lawrence Kudlow, head of the president’s National Economic Council, said he favored reducing the Fed’s current rate by one-half a percentage point to reverse what he called mistakes the central bank made last year by boosting the rate too much.

The Fed in 2018 hiked its policy rate four times, including a quarter of a percentage point in December. Trump harshly criticized those rate hikes, blaming them for a plunge in the stock market late last year. He also has said the increases were unnecessary because inflation was tame even though unemployment had dropped to near a 50-year low.

Trump recently announced his intention to nominate two political allies, 2012 GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain and conservative commentator Stephen Moore, for two vacancies on the seven-member Fed board.

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Moore in December wrote an opinion piece saying that Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and the other Fed officials should be fired for agreeing to the December rate hike.

Moore has since said he wrote those comments in anger, but Trump’s move to put Moore and Cain on the Fed board has raised concerns that they could seriously damage the Fed’s political independence.

The new minutes, released with the customary three-week lag since the meeting, showed that Fed officials spent time discussing a slowdown in the economy that occurred late last year and carried into the early part of this year.

The minutes said that Fed officials believe “the recent softness likely reflected temporary factors” such as the federal government’s 35-day partial shutdown and the sharp drop in the stock market in December.

Fed officials said that consumer sentiment has improved since then, and officials expect consumer spending to rebound in coming months.


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