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Fed delays rate hikes, cites labor market concerns

The Federal Reserve pushed back its plans to raise its benchmark short-term interest rate, a widely expected move following a series of mixed US economic reports.

After a two-day policy meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee unanimously voted to hold the federal funds rate between 0.25% and 0.50%, citing weakness in recent employment data.

“[T]he pace of improvement in the labor market has slowed while growth in economic activity appears to have picked up. Although the unemployment rate has declined, job gains have diminished,” the central bank wrote in its statement.

For the second time, the Fed withheld mention of global economic risks and provided no assessment of the balance of risks, implying that officials are still keeping their options open for a rate hike this summer, but uncertainty and headwinds abroad could arise.

The cautious stance comes after an unexpectedly weak payrolls report in which the US economy added only 38,000 jobs in May, the lowest level in six years. Other employment data has been varied.  The hiring rate slowed in April, but jobless claims are near record lows. Fed officials have said that they are waiting for more data before placing weight on the May employment numbers.

Meanwhile, inflation, which has run below the Fed’s 2% target for four years, has shown signs of strength in recent months, as oil prices and the dollar stabilized. The Fed’s preferred measure of price inflation, the personal consumption expenditures index, increased 1.1% in April from the year before, as core inflation rose 1.6%. However, measures of future inflation expectations have weakened, and the Fed sees inflation remaining “low in the near term."

Fed projections and dot plots

The Fed’s expectations for short-term GDP growth dropped to 2%, while forecasts for unemployment remained mostly unchanged,  and the outlook for core inflation increased to 1.9% by 2017.

Fed officials’ projections for the federal funds rate dropped, indicating one to two quarter-point increases this year, rather than the four hikes envisioned in December. Shortly after the Fed began raising rates in December—for the first time in over a decade—turmoil in US markets and uncertainty abroad convinced many officials to delay further rate increases.

Long run expectations for the fed funds rate also declined to 3% from 3.3% in March.

(Federal Reserve)

The next decision to raise rates will “come down to the data and the markets,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief US economist at High Frequency Economics. “We will get one more employment report before the July meeting…If the economic data is strong enough, they’ll raise rates in the next few months.”

Market expectations for a September rate hike are 24%, with the majority of traders forecasting at least one rate hike by the end of the year.

(Federal Reserve)