The Fed Meets as Economic Data Offers Surprises and Mixed Signals


Investors will scour the Federal Reserve’s policy statement and economic projections Wednesday for any hint that recent data surprises — including faster-than-expected inflation and slower job growth — have shaken up the central bank’s plans for its cheap-money policies.

Economic policymakers are unlikely to make major changes at a time when interest rates are expected to stay near zero for years to come, but a series of tiny adjustments to their policy messaging and new economic projections could combine to make this week’s meeting one to watch, and an important moment for markets.

The central bank will release new economic forecasts from its 18 officials for the first time since March, when the Fed projected no rate increase until at least 2024. Policymakers could pencil in an earlier move, pulling the initial rate rise forward to 2023.

Markets will also watch for even the subtlest hint at what lies ahead for the Fed’s $120 billion in monthly bond purchases, which have kept many kinds of borrowing cheap and pushed up prices for stocks and other assets. Several Fed officials have said they would like to soon discuss plans for slowing their bond buying, though economists expect it will be months before they send investors any clear signal about when the “taper” will start.

The Fed is scheduled to release the policy announcement from its two-day meeting at 2 p.m., followed by a news conference with Chair Jerome H. Powell.

The central bank may want to use the meeting and Mr. Powell’s remarks to “start getting us ready, otherwise, we’re going to be in complete denial until we realize — ‘Ouch, the Fed is stepping away,’” said Priya Misra, head of global rates strategy at T.D. Securities. The point may be to say “they are not running for the exits, but they are at least planning the escape route.”

As it charts a path forward for policy, the Fed will have to weigh signs of economic resurgence — rapid price gains as demand jumps back faster than supply, as well as plentiful job openings — against the reality that millions of people have yet to return to work. The shortfall probably owes to a cocktail of factors, as older workers retire, would-be immigrants remain in their home countries, and virus fears, child-care issues and expanded government benefits combine to keep potential employees at home.

Many workers may simply need time to shuffle into new and suitable jobs, and the Fed is likely to signal that it plans to continue providing policy support as they do that. Here’s what else to watch for.

The Fed is aiming for inflation that runs “moderately above 2 percent for some time” so that it eventually averages 2 percent. Its policy statement has long noted that price gains have run “persistently below this longer-run goal.” After several months of above-2 percent inflation numbers, it may be time to update that language to reflect recent price spikes.

The Fed’s preferred inflation gauge jumped 3.6 percent in April from a year earlier, and the more up-to-date and closely related Consumer Price Index inflation measure popped by 5 percent in May.

But the Fed — like many financial economists — expects that pop to prove temporary. The 5 percent increase in C.P.I. happened partly because prices fell during last year’s intense lockdowns, making current year-over-year comparisons look artificially elevated. Without that so-called base effect, the increase would have been in the neighborhood of 3.4 percent.

That is still obviously on the high side. The rest of the surge came as wages increased and demand bounced back faster than global supply chains, fueling shortages in computer chips and causing shipping snarls. While base effects should fade quickly, it is unclear how rapidly supply bottlenecks will be sorted out. The semiconductor issue may clear up over the coming months, for instance, but some importers have estimated that a shipping container shortage could last at least into next year, potentially lifting prices for some products.

Compounding that uncertainty, the jump in inflation came faster than officials had expected. If the Fed’s preferred inflation index stood completely still at its April level, inflation would grow by 2 percent this year. Instead, prices have continued to grind higher and are most likely already on track to exceed the Fed’s 2.4 percent forecast for 2021. That means officials are going to have to revise their estimates upward when they release new economic projections. The big questions are by how much and whether the revisions bleed into next year.

Mr. Powell is likely to maintain that the recent surge is temporary, yet he will probably have to address the risk that inflation expectations and wages will rise more briskly, locking in the faster price gains. He has previously said that is a possibility, but an unlikely outcome.

“He may be a little less strident than he was at the April press conference,” said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan.

Economists at Goldman Sachs don’t expect the Fed to begin hinting that it is planning to slow its bond purchases until August or September, with a formal announcement in December, and an actual start to tapering at the beginning of next year.

Even then, it’s going to take a long time for the Fed to really unwind its policy support. The Fed has suggested it will first signal that it is thinking of slowing bond purchases, then actually taper, and only then lift rates. Strategists at Goldman estimate that “even if the labor market recovery accelerates rapidly from here,” the first rate increase would probably still be “at least” 15 months away.

Mr. Powell could say or suggest that the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee is taking the first baby step toward that process — what has been called “talking about talking about tapering” — during his news conference.

Officials could also begin to pencil in a timetable for rate increases. The Fed’s so-called dot plot of interest rate projections showed no interest rate increases through 2023, the last year in the forecast, as of March. Many economists expect it to show one rate increase in 2023 after revisions.

But the Fed’s outlook is likely to remain patient — signaling years of low rates ahead — because the job market has a lot of room left to recover. About seven million fewer people reported being employed in May than in February 2020.

While recent job gains have been robust by normal standards, they’ve been slow compared with the hole that remains in the labor market. After climbing by a solid 785,000 jobs in March, hiring has slowed to a more subdued 418,500 jobs on average over the past two months.

The Fed has two goals — stable inflation and maximum employment — and the recent hiring slowdown means the second target could take a little bit longer to achieve.

“Bottom line, I would like to see further progress than where we are right now,” Loretta Mester, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, said on CNBC shortly after the May jobs report was released. “We want to be very deliberately patient here, because this was a huge, huge shock to the economy.”

That’s why economists are looking out for tweaks this week — but no major shift away from the Fed’s supportive stance.

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