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Fed brightens forecast for economic recovery, with more officials warming up to rate hike

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday maintained target interest rates at near-zero and reiterated its commitment to aggressive asset purchases. But a brighter economic forecast had more Fed officials penciling in rate hikes as early as 2022. Still, the central bank signaled a strong likelihood that there may be no rate hikes through 2023.

With two COVID-19 relief bills and over 100 million Americans having received at least one vaccine dose, the nation’s central bank says the economic recovery is progressing faster than it had expected three months ago.

“Following a moderation in the pace of the recovery, indicators of economic activity and employment have turned up recently, although the sectors most adversely affected by the pandemic remain weak,” the Federal Open Market Committee statement read, using new language compared to its January meeting.

The median member of the FOMC still forecasts no liftoff from near-zero rates through the end of 2023, the same as Fed forecasts from December. Three months ago, five Fed officials saw at least one rate hike over that time horizon. But in this week’s release, seven (of 18) officials now see at least one rate hike.

dot plot
The "dot plot" chart from the March 17, 2021 FOMC meeting. The chart maps out each FOMC member's expectations for where interest rates will go in the near-term. Source: Federal Reserve

In its updated Summary of Economic Projections, the FOMC now expects the unemployment rate to tilt down to 4.5% by the end of this year with inflation reaching 2.2%. Three months ago, the Fed expected an unemployment rate of 5.0% by the end of 2021 with inflation missing 2% until 2023.

The Fed reiterated that it is still waiting to see “substantial further progress” toward its dual mandate goals of maximum employment and stable prices before it pulls back on its quantitative easing program. The central bank maintained its commitment to purchase at least $120 billion a month in U.S. Treasuries and agency mortgage-backed securities.

The FOMC has also made it clear that it will not consider a rate hike until inflation (measured in core personal consumption expenditures) reaches 2% and shows signs of “moderately” overshooting that target for some time.

Changes in core PCE, which strips out more volatile prices in food and energy, remains below the Fed’s target and clocked in at 1.5% year-over-year in January.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will likely field questions about the degree to which Fed policy will respond to the improved economic outlook. In recent weeks, Powell has said he would like the central bank to be “patient” with any policy adjustments.

Fine print

The Fed made a number of technical changes in its meeting Wednesday. The central bank said it would no longer conduct regular operations for agency commercial mortgage-backed securities, signaling that the Fed sees smooth functioning in the market for CMBS.

The Fed also opted to raise its cap on overnight reverse repurchase agreements offered by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Money markets have shown an appetite for the so-called repo market, but the Fed had been capping its facility at $30 billion per day. To relieve possible pressures in short-term rates, the Fed raised that limit to $80 billion per day, while maintaining its 0% interest rate on transactions through the facility.

Brian Cheung is a reporter covering the Fed, economics, and banking for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @bcheungz.

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