Fed projects patience even as economic outlook brightens

By Jeanna Smialek

Federal Reserve officials signaled on Wednesday that they are in no rush to dial back support for a pandemic-damaged economy, releasing a fresh set of projections that showed the central bank’s policy interest rate on hold at near zero for years to come — even as the outlook rapidly improves.

After a painful 2020 in which the Fed pledged to do whatever it took to prevent lasting virus-inflicted economic damage, the decision underscored that the policy response had moved into a new stage: As long as it takes.

Fed officials, who cut their policy rate to near zero last March, maintained that setting Wednesday, as was widely expected. Keeping it at rock bottom lowers borrowing costs across the economy, fueling demand and stoking growth.

But their new forecasts sent a remarkably patient message about the path ahead. Most policymakers expected interest rates to remain near zero through 2023, even as they penciled in faster growth, rapidly falling unemployment and inflation rising above 2%.

By promising continued help in the face of a brightening outlook, the central bank underlined its key priorities, which center on coaxing the job market back to full health while nudging prices — which have been sluggish for years — sustainably higher. And it made clear that it is more concerned with standing by the fledgling rebound than with warnings that inflation could get out of control.

“We’re committed to giving the economy the support that it needs to return as quickly as possible to a state of maximum employment and price stability,” Jerome Powell, the Fed chair, said during a news conference Wednesday. That help will continue “for as long as it takes.”

Fed officials noted in their postmeeting statement that some parts of the economy were improving, and Powell said COVID-19 vaccines and fiscal stimulus had driven his colleagues’ sunnier economic expectations. But he also pointed out that the unemployment rate remained elevated and that 9.5 million jobs that had disappeared during the pandemic were still missing from the economy.

“It’s just a lot of people who need to get back to work, and it’s not going to happen overnight — it’s going to take some time,” Powell said. “The faster, the better. We’d love to see it come sooner rather than later.”

Fed officials now think that unemployment will fall to 4.5% this year as growth surges, a quicker decline than previously anticipated, and that inflation will pop to 2.4% in 2021 before easing. They see it hovering around 2.1% by the end of 2023.

That they are willing to allow inflation to move higher without reacting backs up the central bank’s new approach to monetary policy. The Fed said last year that it would stop raising rates preemptively to choke off coming inflation and would aim for 2% as an average goal — meaning it welcomes periods of slightly faster price gains.

“You look at their economic forecasts, they are all better,” said Priya Misra, head of global rates strategy at TD Securities. “They’re telling the market that they will let inflation go above 2%.”

Wednesday’s release of economic projections was closely watched on Wall Street, in part because the central bank had a lot of new information to digest and incorporate into its policy guidance.

Since the Fed last updated its economic projections three months ago, Congress and the White House have passed two large spending packages — a $900 billion bill in December and a $1.9 trillion measure this month. That huge infusion of government cash will put money in consumer bank accounts and could help to avert economic damage that Fed officials had worried about, like bankruptcies and evictions.

The Treasury Department said on Wednesday that 90 million checks to individuals, totaling more than $242 billion, had already been disbursed.

Americans are also receiving vaccinations at a steady pace, spurring hope that the pandemic might abate enough to allow hard-hit service industry companies to reopen more fully at some point this year.

To add to those positive developments, coronavirus cases have eased, and the unemployment rate suggests that the economy continues to slowly heal. Joblessness fell to 6.2% in February, the latest Labor Department data showed, down from a peak of 14.8% in April.

But there is a long way to go — a broader measure of joblessness that Fed officials often cite is around 9.5% — and Powell pointed out repeatedly that uncertainty remained high.

“The path of the virus continues to be very important,” he said, noting that new and virulent strains have emerged. “We’re not done, and I’d hate to see us take our eye off the ball before we actually finish the job.”

Powell indicated on Wednesday that the Fed was not ready to even start talking about when it might reduce that support. When it is, he said, it will signal so “well in advance of any decision to actually taper.”

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