Posted on March 23, 2018

A More Hawkish Fed Was Expected

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) met this week for the first time under the chairmanship of Jerome Powell. In a unanimous decision, the Committee hiked the target range for the federal funds rate by 25 basis points to 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 percent.

Unlike the Bank of Canada, which has a single objective of targeting inflation at roughly 2 percent, the Fed has a dual statutory mandate to both foster price stability and maximum employment.

U.S. labour conditions remain strong, and the economy continues to grow at a moderate pace. Inflation is still below the Fed’s target despite the rapid decline in unemployment to 4.1 percent.

The growth rates of household spending and business fixed investment have moderated from their strong fourth-quarter pace.

In the Fed’s quarterly forecast of economic and financial conditions, policymakers were divided over the outlook for the benchmark interest rate in 2018. Seven officials projected at least four quarter-point hikes would be appropriate this year, while eight expected three or fewer increases to be warranted. This is in direct contrast to market expectations of only two rate hikes this year by the Bank of Canada and is one important reason why the Canadian dollar has fallen sharply vis-a-vis the U.S. dollar in recent weeks, although the loonie did edge upward following the release of the Fed’s decision as the U.S. dollar fell sharply.

In the forecasts, U.S. central bankers projected a median federal funds rate of 2.9 percent by the end of 2019, implying three rate increases next year, compared with two 2019 moves seen in the last round of forecasts in December. They saw the fed funds rate at 3.4 percent in 2020, up from 3.1 percent in December, according to the median estimate.

The median estimate for economic growth this year rose to 2.7 percent from 2.5 percent in December, signaling confidence in US consumers despite recent weakness in retail sales. The 2019 estimate rose to 2.4 percent from 2.1 percent. The 2020 GDP growth continues to be a forecasted 2.0%. Fed officials expect a lift this year and next owing to the tax cuts passed by Republicans in December.

These projections are above the Fed’s estimate for the long-run sustainable growth rate of the US economy of 1.8 percent, a figure that is about in line with the Bank of Canada’s analysis for our country. The tax cut stimulus was introduced to an economy that was already experiencing labour shortages. The Fed estimates the long-run noninflationary level of unemployment to be about 4.5 percent–well above today’s nearly 20-year low of 4.1 percent, suggesting that inflation is likely to rise in coming months.