With latest rate hike, US Fed signals willingness to accept recession to crush inflation

HOUSTON – Federal Reserve officials have given their clearest signal yet that they are willing to tolerate a recession as the necessary trade-off for regaining control of inflation.

Policymakers, criticised for being too late to realise the scale of the inflation problem in the United States, are moving aggressively to catch up. They raised interest rates by 75 basis points on Wednesday for the third time in a row and forecast a further 1.25 percentage points of tightening before year end.

This was more hawkish than expected by economists. In addition, officials cut growth projections, raised their unemployment outlook and Fed chair Jerome Powell repeatedly spoke of the painful slowdown that is needed to curb price pressures running at the highest levels since the 1980s.

“Powell’s admission that there will be below-trend growth for a period should be translated as central bank speak for ‘recession’,” said Ms Seema Shah of Principal Global Investors. “Times are going to get tougher from here.”

To be clear, Fed officials are not explicitly projecting a recession. But Mr Powell’s rhetoric about the rate hikes likely causing pain for workers and businesses has gotten progressively sharper in recent months. On Wednesday, in his post-meeting press conference, Mr Powell said a soft landing with only a small increase in joblessness would be “very challenging”.

“No one knows whether this process will lead to a recession or if so, how significant that recession would be,” Mr Powell told reporters after officials lifted the target range for their benchmark rate to 3 per cent to 3.25 per cent. “The chances of a soft landing are likely to diminish to the extent that policy needs to be more restrictive, or restrictive for longer.”

The sober assessment is in sharp contrast from six months ago, when Fed officials first started raising rates from near zero and pointed to the economy’s strength as a positive – something that would shield people from feeling the effects of a cooling economy.

Officials now implicitly acknowledge, via their more pessimistic unemployment projections, that demand will need to be curtailed at every level of the economy as inflation has proved to be persistent and widespread.

The median forecast among the 19 Fed officials is for unemployment to reach 4.4 per cent next year and stay there till 2024, from the current rate of 3.7 per cent. But even that new level might still be too low. Almost all participants said risks to their new forecasts were weighted to the upside. They projected interest rates reaching 4.4 per cent this year and 4.6 per cent in 2023, before moderating to 3.9 per cent in 2024.

“We have always understood that restoring price stability while achieving a relatively modest increase in unemployment and a soft landing would be very challenging,” Mr Powell said Wednesday. “We have got to get inflation behind us. I wish there were a painless way to do that. There isn’t.”

Fed officials’ apprehension about their ability to bring down inflation is evident in other projections too. Even amid a new rate hike path, officials still do not see inflation easing to their 2 per cent target until 2025.

If they privately suspect that this means the risk of recession is rising, they are not saying so out loud.

“I think they understand it is increasing, although it is still not their goal,” said Ms Laura Rosner-Warburton, senior US economist at the research firm MacroPolicy Perspectives. “Soft landing or not is sort of out of their control and dependent on factors like supply improvement, which they can’t rely on or wait for.”

Mr Powell told reporters several times that a softer labour market may be necessary to sufficiently bring down demand. But he also pointed to higher savings rates and more money at the state level indicating that the economy is still reasonably strong, a “good thing” that he said would make it more resistant to a significant downturn.