WASHINGTON - The Federal Reserve left its key interest rate unchanged Wednesday and projected no rate hikes in 2019, dramatically underscoring its plan to be “patient” about any further increases.
The Fed said it was keeping its benchmark rate — which can influence everything from mortgages to credit cards to home equity lines of credit — in a range of 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent. It also announced that it will stop shrinking its bond portfolio in September, a step that should help hold down long-term rates. It will begin slowing the runoff from its bond portfolio in May.
Combined, the moves signal no major increases in borrowing rates for consumers and businesses. And together with the Fed's dimmer forecast for economic growth this year — 2.1 percent, down from a previous projection of 2.3 percent — the statement it issued Wednesday after its latest policy meeting suggests that it's grown more concerned about the economy.
With the prospect of no rate hikes ahead anytime soon, the stock market reversed losses it had suffered before the Fed issued its statement and was up modestly soon after.
The Fed's decision was approved on an 11-0 vote.
Economic activity slows
Some Fed watchers say they think the next rate move could be a cut later this year if the economy slows as much as some fear it might.
In signaling no rate increases at all this year, the Fed's policymakers reduced their forecast from two that were previously predicted in December. They now project one rate hike in 2020 and none in 2021. The Fed had raised rates four times last year and a total of nine times since December 2015.
The Fed's pause in credit tightening is a response, in part, to slowdowns in the U.S. and global economies. It says that while the job market remains strong, “growth of economic activity has slowed from its solid rate in the fourth quarter.”
The Fed laid out a plan for stemming the reduction of its balance sheet: In May, it will slow its monthly reductions in Treasurys from $30 billion to $15 billion and end the runoff altogether in September. Starting in October, the Fed will shift its runoff of mortgage bonds into Treasurys so its overall balance sheet won't drop further.
Change in direction
The central bank's new embrace of patience and flexibility reflects its calming response since the start of the year to slow growth at home and abroad, a nervous stock market and persistently mild inflation. The Fed executed an abrupt pivot when it met in January by signaling that it no longer expected to raise rates anytime soon.
The shift toward a more hands-off Fed and away from a policy of steadily tightening credit has encouraged the view that the central bank is done raising rates for now and might even act this year to support rather than restrain the economy. Though the U.S. economy is on firm footing, it faces risks from slowing growth and trade conflicts.
All of which suggests that the Fed may recognize that it went too far after it met in December. At that meeting, the Fed approved a fourth rate hike for 2018 and projected two additional rate increases in 2019. Chairman Jerome Powell also said he thought the balance sheet reduction would be on “automatic pilot.”
That message spooked investors, who worried about the prospect of steadily higher borrowing rates for consumers and businesses and perhaps a further economic slowdown. The stock market had begun falling in early October and then accelerated after the Fed's December meeting.
Trump weighs in
President Donald Trump, injecting himself not for the first time into the Fed's ostensibly independent deliberations, made clear he wasn't happy, calling the December rate hike wrong-headed. Reports emerged that Trump was even contemplating trying to fire Powell, who had been his hand-picked choice to lead the Fed.
But after the December turmoil, the Fed in January began sending a more comforting message. At an economic conference soon after New Year's, Powell stressed that the Fed would be “flexible” and “patient” in raising rates — a word he and other policymakers have invoked repeatedly since — and “wouldn't hesitate” to change course if necessary.
Powell, appearing last week on CBS's “60 Minutes,” denied that pressure from Trump had influenced the Fed's policy shift. Private economists generally agree that a slowing economy and a sinking stock market, which eased Fed worries about any possible stock bubble, were more decisive factors.
Stocks have rallied
After sharply falling in December, stocks have rallied and recouped most of their late-year losses in trading since the start of 2019, a rebound credited larger to the Fed's easier monetary stance.
Some analysts say they think the Fed won't raise rates at all this year if the outlook becomes as dim as they are forecasting.
That view is supported by the CME Group, which tracks trading in futures contracts on the Fed's benchmark rate. It says traders now put the probability of any Fed rate hike this year at just 1 percent and project a roughly one-in-four chance that the Fed will actually cut rates by year's end to help prevent a slowing economy from toppling into a recession.