Fed raises rates for the second time this year

Summary of economic projections anticipates improved growth and a lower unemployment rate.


Jun 13, 2018 | James Ong

The Federal Reserve (Fed) hiked rates by 0.25% for the second time this year, lifting the range for the federal funds rate to 1.75% to 2.00%. The statement that accompanied the meeting reflected a strengthening of the economy. The Fed also increased the rate of interest on excess reserves by 0.20% with the intent of moving the effective federal funds rate closer to the middle of the band.

The Fed’s summary of economic projections (SEP) showed improvement in its forecast of growth and a lower expected unemployment rate. The most surprising change in the SEP was a drop in the Fed’s forecasted unemployment rate without a change in its long-term estimate of the non-inflationary rate of unemployment. This suggests the Fed views the economy as having less employment slack compared to its previous meeting. In addition, the median SEP now forecasts four interest rate hikes in 2018 (versus three previously). We do not view this as a significant change. Although the median interest rate forecast among Federal Open Market Committee members (“dot plot”) did shift up, on balance only one individual raised his or her forecast. Moreover, the additional hike forecasted for 2018 was pulled forward from 2020. In other words, the individual members maintained their expectation for the level of rates in 2020 at 3.4%.1 The net outcome was perceived as somewhat hawkish by the market, especially due to this change in the “dot plot.”

The Fed’s statement continued to express that economic conditions will likely warrant “only gradual increases in the federal funds rate.” There was no mention of the recent tightening in emerging market financial conditions. We continue to believe that the Fed will act somewhat cautiously (due to low prevailing levels of inflation) despite strong growth.

Yesterday’s inflation data, for example, pointed to a more moderate level overall. Although the year-over-year core rate increased by 2.2%, the three-month annualized rate is now below 1.8% — less than the Fed’s 2% target.2 In particular, the three-month annualized rate of change of the “sticky” core consumer price index (CPI), as measured by the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank, fell from 2.9% to 2.3% between February and May.2 If this moderation in “sticky” core CPI proves to be persistent (as we expect), overall core CPI readings should begin to cool in the second half of this year and flexible core CPI readings should revert to lower historical levels.

One announcement made by US Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell at the press conference was the Fed would begin having press conferences after every meeting starting in January. He cautioned that the change was an attempt to increase the level of communication and that it did not infer any change in the speed in which the Fed would adjust monetary policy.

Based on our moderating inflation outlook, we expect the Fed to hike three times this year. We believe the lower levels of inflation that we are likely to experience in the third and fourth quarters, coupled with gradually tightening financial conditions will lead the Fed to pause its hiking cycle to gauge the likelihood of future inflation pressures. In our view, this pause could drive the US yield curve to steepen and the US dollar to soften.

1 Source: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, June 13, 2018.
2 Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 12, 2018.

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