U.S. Federal Reserve leaves key interest rate unchanged, expects 3 rate

For a third straight time, the U.S. Federal Reserve kept its key interest rate unchanged Wednesday, as it signalled its expectations to make a series of quarter-point cuts to the benchmark interest rate next year.

Those envisioned rate cuts — which wouldn’t likely begin until the second half of 2024 — suggest officials think high borrowing rates will still be needed for much of next year to further slow spending and inflation.

The unchanged rate is also a sign that the Fed is likely done with raising rates after having imposed the fastest string of increases in four decades to fight painfully high inflation.

In a statement issued after its 19-member policy committee met Wednesday, the Fed said “inflation has eased over the past year but remains elevated.”

It was the first time since inflation first spiked in 2021 that the Fed has formally acknowledged progress in its fight against accelerating prices. It also provided a hint that its rate-cut efforts may be over, saying it is considering whether “any additional” hikes are needed.

Benchmark rate at 5.4%

The Fed kept its benchmark rate at about 5.4 per cent, its highest level in 22 years. The rate that has led to much higher costs for mortgages, auto loans, business borrowing and many other forms of credit.

Higher mortgage rates have sharply reduced home sales. There has been a similar decline in spending on appliances and other expensive goods, which are often purchased on credit.

So far, the Fed has achieved what few observers thought possible a year ago: Bringing inflation down without bringing on an accompanying surge in unemployment or a recession, which typically coincide with a central bank’s efforts to cool the economy.

Though inflation remains above the Fed’s two per cent target, it has declined faster than officials had expected, allowing them to keep rates unchanged and wait to see if price increases continue to ease.

At the same time, the government’s latest report on consumer prices showed that inflation in some areas — particularly health care, apartment rents, restaurant meals and other services — remains persistently high, one reason why Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell is reluctant to signal that policymakers are prepared to cut rates anytime soon.

On Wednesday, the Fed’s quarterly economic projections showed its officials envision a “soft landing” for the economy, in which inflation would continue its decline toward the central bank’s two per cent target without causing a steep downturn. The forecasts showed that the policymakers expect to cut their benchmark rate to 4.6 per cent by the end of 2024 — three quarter-point reductions from its current level.

A sharp economic slowdown could prompt even faster rate reductions. So far, though, there is no sign that a downturn is imminent.

Cuts could impact borrow, stocks

A price tag sticker is shown on a washing machine for sale.
Interest rate cuts, whenever they happen, would reduce borrowing costs and potentially boost spending on big-ticket items frequently purchased on credit.

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