Federal Reserve officials are set to make a second abnormally large interest rate increase this week as they race to cool down an overheating economy. The question for many economists and investors is just how far the central bank will go in its quest to tame inflation.
Central banks around the world have spent recent weeks speeding up their interest rate increases, an approach they’ve referred to as “front-loading.” That group includes the Fed, which raised interest rates by a quarter-point in March, a half-point in May and three-quarters of a point in June, its biggest move since 1994. Policymakers have signaled that another three-quarter-point move is likely on Wednesday.
The quick moves are meant to show that officials are determined to wrestle inflation lower, hoping to convince businesses and families that today’s rapid inflation won’t last. And, by raising interest rates quickly, officials are aiming to swiftly return policy to a setting at which it is no longer adding to economic growth, because goosing the economy makes little sense at a moment when jobs are plentiful and prices are climbing quickly.
released in June suggested that officials would raise rates to 3.4 percent by the end of the year, up from around 1.6 percent now. Many economists have interpreted that to mean that the Fed will raise rates by three-quarters of a point this month, half of a point in September, a quarter-point in November and a quarter-point in December. In other words, it hints that a slowdown is coming.
But policy expectations have regularly been upended this year as data surprises officials and inflation proves stubbornly hot. Just this month, investors were speculating that the Fed might make a full percentage-point increase this week, only to simmer down after central bankers and fresh data signaled that a smaller move was more likely.
That changeability is a key reason that the Fed is likely to emphasize that it is closely watching economic data as it determines policy. Its next meeting is nearly two months away, in September, so central bankers will most likely want to keep their options open so that they can react to the evolving economic situation.
inflation has been running at the fastest pace in more than 40 years, it is likely to slow when July data is released because gasoline prices have come down notably this month.
And, although inflation expectations had shown signs of jumping higher, one key measure eased in early data out this month. Keeping inflation expectations in check is paramount because consumers and companies might change their behavior if they expect quick inflation to last. Workers could ask for higher pay to cover rising costs, companies might continually lift prices to cover climbing wage bills and the problem of rising prices would be perpetuated.
A variety of other metrics of the economy’s strength, from jobless claims to manufacturing measures, point to a slowing business environment. If that cooling continues, it should keep the Fed on track to slow down, said Subadra Rajappa, the head of U.S. rates strategy at Société Générale. While Fed officials want the economy to moderate, they are trying to avoid tipping it into an outright recession.
“When you start to see cracks appear in the unemployment measures, they’re going to have to take a much more cautious approach,” Ms. Rajappa said.
Markets have been quivering in recent days, concerned that central banks around the world will push their war on inflation too far and tank economies in the process. Investors are increasingly betting that the Fed might lower interest rates next year, presumably because they expect the central bank to set off a downturn.
“It is very likely that central banks will hike so quickly that they will overdo it and put their economies into a recession,” said Gennadiy Goldberg, a rates strategist at TD Securities. “That’s what markets are afraid of.”