The Federal Reserve on Wednesday pulled the trigger on its biggest interest rate increase in nearly three decades and signaled that it would do whatever it takes to bring inflation under control.
The move was a stark escalation for Fed Chair Jerome Powell, who just days ago was suggesting a more gradual approach to curbing the hottest price spikes since the early 1980s.
Powell adopted a different tone in addressing reporters after the central bank hiked its key borrowing rate three-quarters of a percentage point, the single largest jump since 1994, when Alan Greenspan led the Fed.
“The worst mistake we could make would be to fail,” said Powell, who was appointed by President Joe Biden to another four-year term at the helm of the central bank. “It’s not an option.”
The Fed’s newly aggressive actions seemed aimed at reassuring the public, which has consistently ranked inflation as among its top concerns. But the policy has also raised fears that the central bank might cause a recession in its bid to tamp down inflation. While the policymakers themselves are hoping to avoid that outcome, they are predicting some economic pain regardless, expecting the unemployment rate — now near modern-era lows at 3.6 percent — to tick up over the next few years.
The Fed also projects the U.S. economy will grow 1.7 percent both in 2022 and 2023, a significant downgrade from the 2.8 percent and 2.2 percent rates they forecast in March for those years. Powell said there was still a path to avoiding a full-blown downturn.
“We’re not trying to induce a recession,” he said emphatically in response to a reporter’s question about the Fed’s intent. “Let’s be clear about that.”
Still, he acknowledged that the central bank is not just withdrawing the extraordinary boost it has given to the economy with ultra-low rates and massive purchases of government securities. It is planning to actively slow growth.
The Fed’s belt-tightening is likely to darken an already grim national mood and could lead to a more serious electoral throttling for Biden’s Democrats in this year’s midterms. But the central bank is betting that more assertive steps now will prevent even more economic pain later.
Indeed, it’s clear that one goal of the central bank’s latest move was convincing the American public that it’s serious about battling inflation, even if there is collateral damage.
“We have to restore price stability,” Powell said. “It’s the bedrock of the economy. If you don’t have price stability, the economy is not going to work as it’s supposed to.”
Powell and the Fed have come under withering criticism from Republicans — and even some Democrats — over what they perceive as the central bank’s tentative steps to curb inflation.
Even after Wednesday’s action, the Fed’s main policy rate sits between 1.5 percent and 1.75 percent, still near historic lows.
The policymakers had let it be known for weeks that they were planning to hike rates by half a percentage point. But after a widely watched inflation report on Friday came in worse than expected, they quickly pivoted to take more drastic action — a rare move by the central bank.
Over the remaining four meetings this year, the policymakers expect to raise their key rate to between 3.25 percent and 3.5 percent — much higher than where they previously expected to go.
Even with a steeper path for interest rates, Fed officials don’t expect to kill price spikes this year, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Covid-related lockdowns in China further inflame the price inflation that gathered momentum last year. They now expect prices, as measured by the personal consumption expenditures price index, to increase 5.2 percent in 2022, compared to their earlier hopes for 4.3 percent.
But they project inflation to drop to 2.6 percent in 2023. The Fed’s target rate is 2 percent.