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Federal Reserve Decides To Keep Interest Rates Low A While Longer

An employee prepares to install the hood on a vehicle at a General Motors plant in Arlington, Texas. Federal Reserve policymakers say recent indicators point to a strengthening labor market.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
An employee prepares to install the hood on a vehicle at a General Motors plant in Arlington, Texas. Federal Reserve policymakers say recent indicators point to a strengthening labor market.

Federal Reserve policymakers said Wednesday that the U.S. economy is chugging along at a decent pace with an improving job market.

Still, they fear risks from "global economic and financial developments."

So given that balance of good news and growing risks, the Federal Open Market Committee decided to take no action on the target range for the federal funds rate at the close of its two-day meeting.

At a press conference, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said that for now, holding interest rates steady was the "prudent" decision. The range will remain at a quarter to a half of one percent.

The fed funds rate is the overnight lending rate that banks charge one another for use of reserve balances. Raising it would have made all sorts of loans somewhat more expensive for borrowers.

The FOMC is now planning to raise rates by a quarter point twice this year. That's less than the four times previously expected, so it's an indication that Fed policymakers are now worried enough about slowing growth to be reluctant to nudge rates higher more quickly.

"The committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate," the Fed said.

Translation: We're a little more worried now so we'll try to keep your interest rates lower for longer to help you spend more.

That may sound ominous, but the Fed report also had a lot of upbeat notes. For example, it said Americans have seen "strong job gains." Moreover, "household spending has been increasing at a moderate rate, and the housing sector has improved further."

The Fed's job is to keep the economy growing, but also make sure inflation doesn't take off. If the policymakers had seen wages and prices shooting up, they could have raised rates to cool growth.

Or if they had found solid evidence of a looming recession, they could have trimmed rates to stimulate economic growth.

As it turned out, the bankers concluded the various risks are pretty much balancing each other out.

No one was surprised that the Fed came to that decision. Economists have been virtually unanimous in predicting a no-action conclusion to the March Fed meeting.

And economic data released Wednesday seemed to confirm that the Fed's assessment is right.

For example, the Labor Department released its consumer price index, a widely followed measure of inflation. It showed an overall decline of 0.2 percent in February, thanks to a continued drop in energy prices.

Gasoline got especially cheap last month, falling 13 percent and providing a lot of financial relief for consumers on tight budgets.

But the report also showed that core inflation, without volatile food and energy prices, showed an uptick of 0.3 percent for the second month in a row. That increase largely reflects higher rents and growing medical costs.

So overall, the inflation picture has been neutral, though most economists say the trend is likely to be up in coming months because gasoline prices have been rebounding.

Other economic data also showed a balance of good and bad news. For example, Moody's Analytics released its latest outlook for U.S. regional economies, and it showed four energy-producing states — Alaska, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming — are in recession today.

But the report also showed that in the other 46 states, "the outlook for 2016 and 2017 is upbeat," Moody's Analytics concluded.

So that's the picture the Fed is seeing: a mix of good and bad news that allows policymakers to hold rates steady.

A recent Wall Street Journal survey of economists found they overwhelmingly expect the Fed to make that first move in June.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marilyn Geewax is a contributor to NPR.