Fed leaves rates unchanged, signals December hike

The continued strength of the American economy made it more likely that the Federal Reserve will stick to its plans to raise rates in December, part of a strategy to keep growth on an even keel into 2019.

Fed policymakers agreed to hold rates steady this month, according to a statement released Thursday at the conclusion of a two-day policy-setting meeting in Washington.

That leaves the benchmark rate, which determines the cost of borrowing on credit cards, mortgages and other loans, unchanged in a range of 2% and 2.25%.

Since Fed officials met in late September, “the labor market continues to strengthen,” the statement read. “Economic activity has been rising at a strong rate.”

The statement also described job growth as “strong.”

Markets have gone up this week since Democrats retook control of the House in Tuesday’s midterms — a widely anticipated development that likely guarantees two years of gridlock in Washington and an array of fresh investigations into the Trump administration.

The political shift in Washington is expected to have little impact on the US central bank’s trajectory. The Fed is expected to raise rates at its final 2018 meeting in December, with a majority of participants now in favor of the move.

Investors anticipate policymakers will push rates higher at least three more times in 2019, a standard policy response to a booming economy that also buys central bankers wiggle room in the event of a downturn.

Employers added 250,000 jobs in October, surpassing expectations. Wages have also grown 3.1% year-over-year, after years of American workers’ paychecks stagnating.

“The big-picture takeaway is that we don’t think the midterms will change the economic outlook,” Marina Grushin, a Goldman Sachs strategist wrote in a note to clients.

Next year’s divided Congress has also left analysts shrugging off the likelihood of any major legislative initiatives over the next two years, with low expectations for new tax cuts or other big moves — though concerns persist surrounding budget negotiations.

Fed officials next month will have to contend with yet another political twist over a potentially heated budget fight. The federal government is funded through Dec. 7, and lawmakers will need to reach agreement on fiscal spending plans to avert a partial government shutdown.

“Gridlock does not mean the economic boat will capsize,” S&P Global’s US chief economist Beth Ann Bovino wrote in a note to clients, “though it will likely increase uncertainty around fiscal deadlines.”

In the run-up to the elections, President Donald Trump repeatedly took credit for the booming economy, urging voters to stick with Republicans if they want more jobs — all while blasting his top Fed chief, Jerome Powell, for threatening Trump’s popularity by backing interest rate increases that run counter to the administration’s expansionary moves.

Fed officials worry low unemployment and higher wages could speed up inflation, forcing the central bank to raise rates more aggressively, and tip the economy into recession. US policy makers are also contending with a strengthening dollar as interest rates rise and more recent market volatility just as other central banks take steps to end crisis-era stimulus programs.

Business investment has only risen slightly in the third quarter due to the Trump administration’s escalating trade wars, and the stimulative effects of the December tax cuts also appears to have worn off. Fed officials noted on Thursday that the growth of business investment had “moderated since its rapid pace earlier this year.”

It’s left investors wondering whether Fed officials might lower next year’s growth forecast when they meet in December, especially given the recent tightening in financial conditions driven by the equity selloff over the past few months.

On Thursday, Fed officials refrained from mentioning recent market volatility in their statement. Doing so might have been interpreted as central bankers considering slowing down their rate hike plans.

Policymakers have tried to strike the right balance, telegraphing they would be prepared to adjust in either direction to keep the economy on even keel.

Fed officials debated at last month’s meeting how restrictive policy would need to be in the future, with “a few” participants arguing that additional rate hikes may be necessary “for a time” while others would need to see clear signs of the economy overheating before taking further action.

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