Fed signals no rate changes are coming in 2019

Policymakers will remain 'patient'

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Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell

(CNN) - The Federal Reserve on Wednesday voted to hold interest rates steady and shaved its growth forecast.

Fed officials, who gathered in Washington for their two-day policy setting meeting, unanimously recommitted to remain "patient," agreeing to indefinitely stick with an extended pause on rate changes. They also signaled that the Fed wouldn't hike rates in 2019.

It's "a great time to be patient," Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told reporters at a press conference.

The US economy, while steady, faces a number of risks due to domestic and global slowdown.

In its statement, the Fed's policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee said that the country's labor market "remains strong," but economic activity has "slowed from its solid rate in the fourth quarter," citing sluggish spending by households and reduced business investment.

The majority of Fed officials — 11 total — now anticipate holding rates steady for the remainder of 2019. Only six participants forecast at least one additional rate hike this year.

Last December, the Fed forecast at least two rate hikes in 2019, but has since sent strong signals it may be unlikely to raise rates much, if at all, this year.

The committee also lowered its forecast of the federal funds rate, which influences the cost of mortgages, credit cards and other borrowing, to 2.4% from 2.9%, yet another signal the Fed is inclined to keep rates steady for the rest of the year.

Since the start of the year, the Fed has kept rates at a range of 2.25% to 2.5%.

Powell side-stepped questions throughout the press conference about what it would take for the Fed to either lift or cut rates. He noted that the data so far hasn't suggested which direction policy makers should move in just yet.

"Data we're seeing are not currently sending a signal," said Powell, of needing to move in either direction. "And when they do clarify, we will act appropriately."

US stocks initially pared their losses after the Fed's announcement, though the Dow trended back downward following the press conference. Bank stocks fell on concerns about the gloomy growth forecast.

In an interview earlier this month with the CBS news program "60 Minutes," Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell reinforced the message that policy makers aren't in "any hurry to change" their interest rate policy, preferring to watch as the economy evolves.

Powell has tried to caution investors not to read too deeply into the so-called dot plots, which includes forecasts of each member of the policy-setting committee on where they anticipate interest rates will go.

At the March meeting, Fed officials downgraded their GDP growth forecast for 2019 to 2.1%, suggesting they may be more worried than previously about slowing domestic and global growth. The slowdown in China, driven in part by an ongoing trade war sparked by President Donald Trump, as well uncertainty surrounding Brexit, threaten the global economy.

Central bankers previously estimated the US economy would grow 2.3% this year, significantly lower than the Trump administration's forecast.

They also raised their estimates of the country's jobless rate to 3.7% up from 3.5%.

The bank also officially laid out plans to end its $4 trillion balance sheet normalization on a monthly basis.

Starting in May, the Fed will begin to address its holding of Treasury securities by reducing the cap from the current level of $30 billion to $15 billion per month.

Then, at the end of September, the Fed will effectively stop undoing the extraordinary steps it took to prop up the economy for almost a decade after the financial crisis. Fed officials, including Powell, had signaled the Fed would probably take such a step later this year, but no date had been previously set.

The Fed chairman weighed in on the necessity to be mindful of ballooning deficits. The country's debt now stands at $22 trillion. The president's fiscal 2020 budget projects that debt will balloon to $31 trillion by 2029.

"Deficits matter ... it's not really controversial," Powell said.

He added that he'd like to see a "greater focus" on that issue over time, though he said he didn't think it would lead to an immediate problem.

"It's not in the nature of a near-term debt crisis or anything like that," he added.

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