Federal Reserve leaves interest rates unchanged despite stubborn inflation

A surging economy has complicated the fight to cool price increases.

November 1, 2023, 3:00 PM

The Federal Reserve left interest rates unchanged on Wednesday, despite stubborn inflation that has resisted the central bank's fight to cool price increases.

The move allows previous rate increases to take greater hold of the economy and grants the central bank time to assess whether another hike will be necessary.

Inflation stands well below its peak last year of over 9%, but progress has stalled in recent months and price growth remains more than a percentage point higher than the central bank's target rate.

Speaking in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said the central bank drew closer to its inflation goal over the past year, opting to hold rates steady as it weighs the steps necessary to bring inflation down to normal levels.

"Inflation has been coming down but it’s still running well above our 2% target," Powell said. "Given how far we have come, along with the uncertainties and risks we face, the committee is proceeding carefully."

Once bemoaned as a source of recession worries, the U.S. economy has become a wellspring of good news: blistering growth, robust hiring and consumers opening their wallets for everything from concert tickets to bar tabs.

The strong performance complicates the fight to dial back inflation, posing a quandary for the Fed.

Since last year, the Fed has raised its benchmark interest rate at the fastest pace in more than two decades, seeking to slash price hikes by slowing the economy and reducing consumer demand.

In theory, the economy should eventually falter as it becomes more expensive for businesses and consumers to borrow. But the economy has so far resisted a cooldown.

Gross domestic product data released last week showed that the U.S. economy expanded at a 4.9% annualized rate over three months ending in September. That breakneck pace more than doubled growth over the previous quarter and reinforced other recent indicators of sturdy performance.

A blockbuster jobs report last month exceeded economist expectations by nearly twofold. Consumer spending, which accounts for nearly three-quarters of U.S. economic activity, surged in September, government data showed.

On Wednesday, Fed Chair Jerome Powell noted the unexpectedly strong economic performance in recent months.

"Recent indicators suggest that economic activity has been expanding at a strong pace," Powell said.

Recent economic growth, however, belies an alarm sounded by one of the most important economic indicators: the 10-year Treasury yield.

PHOTO: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell speaks at a meeting of the Economic Club of New York, Oct. 19, 2023, in New York.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell speaks at a meeting of the Economic Club of New York, Oct. 19, 2023, in New York.
Seth Wenig/AP

A rapid rise in U.S. government bond yields over recent weeks has elevated long-term borrowing costs for consumers seeking mortgage loans and corporations pursuing funds to expand their businesses.

"Higher treasury yields are showing through to higher borrowing costs for households and businesses, and those higher costs are going to weigh on economic activity," Powell said on Wednesday.

The onset of some financial pain is exemplified by the housing market, where the average interest rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage briefly exceeded 8% on Monday, Mortgage News Daily data shows.

High mortgage rates have dramatically slowed the housing market, since homebuyers have balked at the stiff borrowing costs and home sellers have opted to stay put with mortgages that lock them into comparatively low rates.

Mortgage applications have fallen to their lowest level since 1996, the Mortgage Brokers Association said last month.

The Fed may consider the sharp increase in bond yields as indication that a string of previous rate hikes has begun to make its way through the economy, rendering an additional rate hike unnecessary, at least for now.

But the central bank hinted at its most recent meeting in September that it expects to raise rates one more time this year, according to projections included alongside a statement last month from the Federal Open Market Committee, the Fed's decision-making body on interest rates.

The benchmark interest rate currently stands at a range 5.25% to 5.5%, as a result of a near-historic series of rate increases.

Powell said the rate hikes have yielded progress in the central bank's fight against inflation. But, he added, the effort remains far from over.

"The process of getting inflation sustainably down to 2% has a long way to go," Powell said. "We remain strongly committed."

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