TODAY'S PAPER
Good Morning
Good Morning
Business

Fed raises key interest rate by a quarter-point

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on March 1,

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on March 1, 2018. Credit: AP / Jacquelyn Martin

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve on Wednesday lifted its key interest rate from 1.5 percent to 1.75 percent, the highest level since 2008.

The move, the central bank’s first major decision under new Chairman Jerome Powell, was widely expected as the U.S. economy continues to strengthen and stock markets remain near record highs. The rate-hike vote was a unanimous 8-0.

The Fed also significantly boosted its forecast for U.S. growth this year and next. The U.S. economy is on track to expand 2.7 percent this year and 2.4 percent in 2019, Fed officials now say, a jump from their previous projection done before the Republican tax cuts were finalized.

“The economic outlook has strengthened in recent months,” the Fed said in its statement Wednesday.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note declined to 2.88 percent, from 2.90 percent a day earlier, The Associated Press reported. During Wednesday trading, it had risen as high as 2.93 percent as investors expected quicker gains in interest rates.

The Fed anticipates hiking rates three more times in 2018, part of an ongoing move away from the extraordinary measures it took to stimulate the economy during and after the Great Recession. But the central bank opened the door to potentially doing four hikes. The higher rates are likely to be welcomed by savers but not by borrowers, who will face more expensive loan terms.

Americans should expect even faster growth and lower unemployment ahead, Fed officials said. Unemployment is now expected to fall to 3.8 percent this year and 3.6 percent in 2019, which would be the lowest level since 1969.

“Fiscal policy has become more stimulative. Ongoing job gains are boosting incomes and confidence, [and] foreign growth is on a firm trajectory,” Powell said in his first news conference, which was significantly shorter than those of his predecessor Janet Yellen.

There’s growing concern among economists that the GOP tax cuts and the additional boost in federal government spending could cause the U.S. economy to overheat, requiring the Fed to hike rates even more than three times this year. Of the 15 Fed board members, six anticipate the Fed will hike four times this year and one believes five hikes will be necessary. It’s not quite enough to tip the official forecast to four rate increases, but it’s getting close. The Fed hasn’t hiked rates four times in a year since 2006.

Powell, a Republican with a reputation for bipartisan work in Washington, was careful not to criticize President Donald Trump or congressional leaders, but he did say the tax cuts are unlikely to lead to the 3 percent growth the White House is touting. He also said the Fed is hearing from many business leaders that “trade policy has become a concern going forward.”

But so far, Powell said, the Fed has not altered its economic projects because of Trump’s tariffs on aluminum and steel or likely trade actions against China.

Despite Wednesday’s move, U.S. interest rates are still far lower than the historic norm of about 5 percent. Rising interest rates are typically good for savers, who are likely to receive higher interest on the savings they have in the bank. Borrowers, however, face higher costs when they try to get a mortgage, auto loan or small business loan.

Americans with credit card debt are especially vulnerable to rising interest rates. The average credit card rate is already a full percentage point higher than it was a year ago and is likely to jump up more this year as the Fed hikes rates further.

“I read this as the Fed is still having trouble rectifying moderate growth and subdued inflation,” said economist Lindsey Piegza of Stifel.

More news