Federal Reserve holds US interest rates steady but path forward is uncertain

Jerome Powell says timing of rate cuts depends on confidence of inflation's road back to 2 per cent

Jerome Powell has already indicated the Fed is unlikely to continue raising interest rates. AFP
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The Federal Reserve kept US interest rates steady on Wednesday while also affirming that they will remain elevated until the central bank is confident inflation is moving closer to its 2 per cent goal.

US interest rates were held to their current target range of 5.25 to 5.50 per cent, as expected.

Fed chairman Jerome Powell said he and his colleagues need to see more evidence before they are fully convinced that inflation is moving towards its target.

“The committee does not expect it will be appropriate to reduce the target range until it has gained greater confidence that inflation is moving sustainably toward 2 per cent,” Mr Powell told reporters.

He said there was progress in getting inflation under control.

"The risks to achieving the employment and inflation goals are moving into better balance," Mr Powell said.

Wednesday's announcement indicates the latest shift in the Fed's mission, as its statement dropped language that would open the door for another rate increase.

"We believe that our policy rate is likely at its peak for this tightening cycle and that if the economy evolves broadly as expected, it will likely be appropriate to begin dialling back policy restraint at some point this year," Mr Powell said.

The Fed has raised interest rates 11 times since 2022 to its current 5.4 per cent rate – the highest level in 23 years. By doing so, it has sought to slow the economy while avoiding a recession.

Recent economic data has shown inflation is moving closer to the Fed's 2 per cent target without mass layoffs, adding to hopes that a soft landing can be achieved.

Mr Powell said it was still too soon to say that the Fed has achieved a soft landing.

"We're not declaring victory yet," he said.

The Fed forecast three rate cuts this year in its December meeting but was less certain on when that might happen.

Markets had previously estimated the first rate cut would be as soon as March, but cautionary words from Fed officials in recent weeks have shifted those projections to May.

Since the December meeting, economic data has moved in the direction the Fed wants.

Its preferred inflation index fell below 3 per cent last month and averaged 2 per cent in the final quarter of last year.

Meanwhile, the US economy grew at a solid 3.3 per cent pace from October to December but well below the previous quarter.

That growth outperformed the Fed's 2.6 per cent projection from December, indicating the economy remains strong in the face of high interest rates.

Updated: February 01, 2024, 9:08 AM