WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Federal Reserve said on Wednesday it will likely begin reducing its monthly bond purchases as soon as November and signaled interest rate increases may follow more quickly than expected as the U.S. central bank’s turn from pandemic crisis policies gains momentum.
The slight hawkish tilt was signaled in a new policy statement and economic projections that showed nine of 18 Fed officials ready to raise interest rates next year in response to inflation that the central bank now expects to run at 4.2% this year, more than double its 2% target rate.
A drawdown of the central bank’s $120 billion in monthly bond purchases could begin after the Nov. 2-3 policy meeting as long as U.S. job growth through September is “reasonably strong, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in a news conference following the central bank’s latest two-day session. The U.S. nonfarm payrolls report for September will be released in early October, the last such report before Fed policymakers gather again in November.
“It wouldn’t take a knockout or super-strong employment report,” to start the “taper” of the bond-buying program, with the process expected to wind down by the middle of next year, Powell said.
That timetable has taken on added significance. The Fed wants its purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities to end before it starts lifting borrowing costs, and new projections showed officials poised for that to happen in 2022.
The Fed now projects inflation will run above its target for four consecutive years. Even though the overshoot is slight, at 2.2% in 2022 and 2023 and 2.1% in 2024, it has begun to shift views among policymakers who have been divided over whether the biggest risk is the pandemic’s ongoing impact on the economy, marked by relatively high joblessness, or the threat of breakout inflation.
For the time being, the Fed still anticipates being able to spur employment while keeping a lid on inflation, which it views as the result of “transitory” forces that will ebb on their own.
Indeed, the interest rate increases are expected to proceed slowly, pushing the Fed’s benchmark overnight lending rate to 1% in 2023 and then to 1.8% in 2024 – still considered a loose monetary policy stance that will allow the unemployment rate to fall to its pre-pandemic level of around 3.5%.
Policymakers, however, downgraded their expectations for economic growth this year, with gross domestic product expected to grow 5.9% compared to the 7.0% projected in June, largely as a result of the new wave of coronavirus cases.
Overall, the Fed’s statement and projections are “probably a little bit more hawkish than many would have anticipated, basically acknowledging that should the economy continue to grow as we have seen, it would warrant a tapering to occur,” said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist for CFRA Research in New York. “You could say it’s a tentative tapering announcement even though they did lower their 2021 GDP forecast.”
Powell told reporters financial conditions would remain accommodative even after the Fed stops its asset purchases and emphasized that the decision on the bond-buying program was separate from any actions regarding interest rates.
The Fed on Wednesday held its current target interest rate steady in a range of 0% to 0.25%.
U.S. stocks extended gains after the release of the statement before retreating later in the afternoon, with the S&P 500 index closing up about 1%. U.S. Treasury yields see-sawed, with the yield on the benchmark U.S. 10-year note edging lower.
The Fed’s September policy statement had been widely expected to point to the coming end of the bond purchases it has been making to blunt the economic impact of the pandemic.
Fed officials said last December that they would continue purchasing bonds at the current pace until there was “substantial further progress” on the central bank’s goals for maximum employment and inflation.
The inflation benchmark has been cleared, Powell said on Wednesday, and the employment standard “all but met.”
But it was in their broader economic outlook that Fed policymakers made a less anticipated change.
Their outlook for inflation jumped 0.8 percentage point for 2021 and the expected end-of-year unemployment rate rose over policymakers’ previous forecast in June. In turn, two officials brought forward into 2022 their projected timeline for slightly lifting the Fed’s benchmark overnight interest rate from the current level, enough to raise the median projection to 0.3% for next year.
The move to lower GDP growth expectations for 2021 reflected concerns that the coronavirus is weighing on the economy. Projected growth for next year was increased from 3.3% to 3.8%, with spending merely shifted into future months when the virus is expected to recede.
“The sectors most adversely affected by the pandemic have improved in recent months, but the rise in COVID-19 cases has slowed their recovery,” the Fed said in its policy statement.
(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Additional reporting by Jonnelle Marte and U.S. Finance and Markets Breaking News teamEditing by Paul Simao)