Federal Reserve asks for patience ahead of cutting US interest rates

US central bankers expecting to dial back restrictive policy this year, but are wary about starting too soon

Officials at the Federal Reserve expressed caution on cutting US interest rates too soon. Bloomberg
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Officials at the Federal Reserve embarked on a new media blitz this week to express concern about cutting US interest rates too soon, warning that doing so could undo much of the progress they have made on taming inflation.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell initiated the new communications strategy last week when he ruled out a March rate cut after the US central bank held rates steady between 5.25 per cent and 5.50 per cent. And in an interview on 60 Minutes on Sunday night, he said dialling them back too soon could lead to “inflation settling out somewhere well above” the Fed's long-term 2 per cent goal.

Inflation has climbed down considerably since the Fed began its aggressive rate increases.

Recent economic data shows that the Fed's preferred inflation metric has fallen from 7.1 per cent in 2022 to 2.6 per cent. Economic growth and consumer spending are also strong, raising hopes of a soft landing.

The Fed expects to make three quarter-rate cuts this year, but there is still a great deal of uncertainty on when this might begin. Last week's blockbuster jobs report affirmed the belief of a higher-for-longer position.

“When the economy is as strong as it is, it's hard to feel urgency in taking rates down,” Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin said at the Economic Club of New York on Thursday.

He also noted several areas of concern including accelerating wage growth, a lack in housing supply and uncertainty caused by geopolitics.

“That’s why I think it is smart for us to take our time,” he said.

“No one wants inflation to re-emerge. And given robust demand and a historically strong labour market, we have time to build that confidence before we begin the process of toggling rates down.”

Mr Barkin is one of several Fed officials who have echoed Mr Powell.

Federal Reserve Governor Adriana Kugler did not offer specifics on when the timing of potential rate cuts, saying that continued cooling in inflation and labour markets “may make it appropriate” to dial back.

“On the other hand, if progress on disinflation stalls, it may be appropriate to hold the target range steady at its current level for longer to ensure continued progress on our dual mandate,” Ms Kugler said at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Wednesday.

The Fed governor, formerly the US executive director at the World Bank, said the war in Ukraine and potential widening of conflict in the Middle East could lead to increased goods inflation.

“When I worked at the World Bank, I followed these issues on international supply chains and commodity prices closely, and I certainly continue to do so now,” she said.

Meanwhile, Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester said it would be a “mistake” to move rates down before more evidence comes in.

“Doing so would undermine all of the good work that has gone into getting inflation to this point,” she said at an event in Ohio on Monday.

The comments from Mr Powell, Mr Barkin, Ms Kugler and Ms Mester – all voting members this year – show that the Fed is looking for more data before it is confident enough to begin cutting rates.

Non-voting Federal Reserve Bank presidents Susan Collins of Boston, Austan Goolsbee of Chicago and Neel Kashkari of Minneapolis expressed similar sentiments.

The Fed next meets on March 19-20, when it is expected to leave interest rates unchanged again.

Updated: February 09, 2024, 2:29 PM