The Federal Reserve on Wednesday said it is holding its benchmark interest rate steady, extending a reprieve for borrowers after the fastest series of hikes in four decades. The central bank also indicated it expects three rate cuts in 2024. 

The Fed said in its policy statement that it will maintain the federal funds rate in a range of 5.25% to 5.5%, marking the third consecutive pause since July, when it last raised rates. Federal Bank officials also signaled the benchmark rate could be cut by 0.75% percentage point in 2024, according to a chart that documents their projections.

“The appropriate level [of the federal funds rate] will be 4.6% at the end of 2024” if the Fed’s economic projections hold up, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said during a conference call to discuss today’s decision.

Stocks rose modestly after the Fed’s statement, with the S&P 500 gaining 0.5% immediately after the release of the projections signaling the expected path for rates next year. Rate cuts by the Fed would reduce borrowing costs across the economy, providing relief to consumers who have been slammed by higher costs for all types of loans, from mortgages to credit card debt.

“The market is celebrating that the Fed dots moved closer to the market’s,” said Jon Maier, chief investment officer at investment company Global X.

Fed officials have raised the federal funds rate 11 times since starting the tightening cycle in March of 2022 to combat the hottest inflation in 40 years. The strategy has largely succeeded in dousing inflation and even led prices to fall for some products, such as used cars, furniture and appliances. 

But higher borrowing costs have priced many homebuyers out of the market and added to the expense of buying cars, carrying credit card debt and taking out loans. 

Done with hikes?

Most Wall Street economists think the Fed is done with additional rate hikes, although they project the bank will likely keep the benchmark rate steady for several more months. Now, the guessing game is when policymakers might start to lower rates, with the majority of analysts forecasting May or June 2024 as when the central bank might make its first cut. 

“Importantly, Fed officials now expect to cut rates by 75 basis points next year, more than the 50bps they were forecasting in September,” noted High Frequency Economics in a research note. 

Even so, Powell stressed in a press conference that the central bank would remain open to raising rates, if necessary. While noting that inflation has fallen sharply, he said it has farther to go to reach the bank’s goal of 2%. 

“It’s really good to see the progress we are making,” Powell said. “We just need to see more, continued further progress to getting back to 2%. It’s our job to restore price stability.”

Expectations for rate cuts in 2024 have partly fueled the recent stock market rally.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell “will undoubtedly acknowledge progress on growth and inflation and may well characterize the runway for a soft landing as widening,” noted David Kelly, chief global strategist at J.P. Morgan Asset Management in an email before the announcement. 

“However, he will not want to trigger any further rally in the stock and bond markets towards the end of the year and, consequently, his remarks may express more confidence in the outlook for real economic growth and more doubt about the decline in inflation than he really feels or the data warrant,” he added. 

—With reporting by the Associated Press.

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