Sticky inflation could be a wild card for easing timetable at Fed meeting

FILE PHOTO: An eagle tops the U.S. Federal Reserve building’s facade in Washington, July 31, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Karen Brettell

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Reserve is widely expected to keep rates unchanged when it ends its two-day meeting on Wednesday, but policy makers could show more concern about stubborn inflation and present more hawkish signals about the timing and extent of any easing this year.

Stronger-than-expected economic growth and stickier inflation this year has led investors to push back expectations on the U.S. central bank’s first rate cut to June, from May, and reduce bets on how many cuts are likely this year.

Traders are now pricing in three 25 basis points cuts, in line with Fed policymakers’ median expectations made in December. The Fed is due to give updated economic projections and refresh its “dot plot” graphing policymakers’ interest rate projections at the meeting.

“What will be really interesting to see is if the Fed is still comfortable in the dot plots to still be showing the possibility of three rate cuts for this year,” said Matt Eagan, head of the full direction team at Loomis, Sayles & Co. “Or will they start to say we’ve got to push back against this a little bit longer.”

The Fed pivoted to a more dovish outlook in December on growing confidence that inflation was on track to its 2% annual target.

Inflation has since picked up, though analysts note that recent hotter-than-expected consumer and producer price index reports likely reflected seasonal factors.

Powell said after the Fed’s January meeting that the central bank wants more confidence that inflation will continue to decline before cutting rates.

“The Fed doesn’t want to break anything,” said Padhraic Garvey, regional head of research, Americas at ING, adding that when inflation gets closer to 2% the Fed will likely “use that opportunity as one to get rates off the highs.”

In the meantime, the Fed may caution about the prospect of near-term rate cuts.

“The main focus is which way they lean,” said Stephen Gola, head of U.S. Treasuries Sales & Trading at StoneX Group.

An unexpected uptick in unemployment last month could keep the Fed circumspect on growth, offsetting some of the inflation concerns.

Another possibility is that Powell could adopt a more hawkish tone by referencing loose financial conditions as stock markets hit records and corporate credit draws enthusiastic demand.

“He didn’t say it (in January) but stocks have only gone higher and I think they’re going to struggle to achieve what they want to achieve as long as that’s the case,” Gola said.

Powell in November cited financial conditions when higher Treasury bond yields, mortgage rates and other financing costs were having a tightening impact on the economy. His comments were interpreted as potentially leading the Fed to hike rates less than expected.


The Fed may also signal that it is getting closer to tapering its quantitative tightening (QT) program, in which it allows bonds to roll off its balance sheet without replacement.

QT is meant to remove excess liquidity created by record bond purchases designed to stimulate the economy during COVID-related business shutdowns. So far QT has helped shrink the Fed’s balance sheet to $7.5 trillion from a peak of around $9 trillion.

With ample liquidity remaining in the market, Garvey said there is no urgency to address the issue.

“In our calculations we’ve still got about $1 trillion worth of excess liquidity in the system,” Garvey said. “If I saw the Fed getting concerned about taking liquidity away too fast it would lead me to get a bit concerned that they’ve seen something that we’re not seeing in the system.”

The Fed may also expand on Fed Governor Christopher Waller’s comments that it may look to shift its mix of purchases to hold more shorter-dated Treasuries instead of mortgage-backed debt.

“Longer maturities have a bigger effect on the market,” said Eagan. By reducing duration but still buying Treasuries, they can potentially decrease the market impact “without upsetting the plumbing of the liquidity within the banking system,” he said.


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