FOMC Alert: Is the Last Fed Rate Hike Coming on Feb. 1?

A detail shot of the Federal Reserve building.Source: Shutterstock

A week out from the Federal Reserve’s first Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting of the new year and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Will the next Fed rate hike be the last in 2023?

Well, maybe. Analysts and economists everywhere are increasingly convinced that a Fed-induced recession will hit the country within the year. Indeed, many believe the central bank has tightened the economy a bit too much too fast.

While metrics like unemployment have typically held strong despite wider deterioration, jobs are also expected to fall in line, likely sooner than later. Many believe hitting the brakes on hikes may be the best way to avert a devastating economic downturn. Heading into what may be the final hike of the year, economists are closely watching to see the magnitude of the rate increase. They’re also keeping an eye on commentary from Fed officials over the direction of the economy this year.

Not everyone is in agreement over next week’s meeting, however. According to a recent Reuters poll, most economists predict there will be at least one additional rate hike in the first quarter before the Fed steps off the gas.

Currently, most market projections have the Fed pushing out a quarter-point rate increase on Feb. 1, the smallest hike in recent memory. This was reaffirmed in the same Reuters poll; 80% of polled economists predict a 25-basis-point hike, taking the federal funds rate to between 4.5% and 4.75%. That’s certainly a far cry from the 0% benchmark rate the country enjoyed at the start of 2022, but is it enough to lower inflation?

Fed Rate Hike Looms Large as Recession Fears Grow

At its last policy meeting in December, Fed officials unanimously agreed that slowing the pace of rate hikes was best for achieving the long-prophesied “soft landing.” In the meeting, officials acknowledged the balancing act of attempting to reduce aggregate demand enough to lower inflation while not weighing down the economy with senseless unemployment that overly burdens low-income demographics.

Some are even holding out hope for a true Fed pivot — that the Fed will reverse course and lower rates at some point this year. At its December meeting, however, it became clear that no Fed official supported reducing the federal funds rate in 2023, especially without notable reductions in price.

Not everyone agrees with this assessment, however. Paul Ashworth, Capital Economics Chief North American Economist, believes that lowering rates is a virtual inevitability this year:

“Our view is still that rapidly easing inflation, combined with a notable drop-off in employment growth will alter the landscape quite dramatically over the first half of this year […] After a final 50 (basis points) of tightening over the first quarter, taking the fed funds rate to a peak of close to 5%, we still expect the Fed to be cutting rates again before the end of this year.”

Now, Fed pivots and recession projections are intrinsically linked. Indeed, why would the central bank possibly look to lower rates back down without a clear prerogative to do so? Mass unemployment and shrinking consumer spending would certainly qualify as just cause.

Layoffs are already underway, led by high-growth tech and finance companies. Current expectations are for unemployment to hit as high as 4.8% over the next two years. While not nearly as devastating as past recessions, that still represents potentially millions of job cuts.

What’s the Missing Piece to End Rate Hikes Once and for All?

At the end of the day, the central bank isn’t going to cease its tightening process until inflation makes clear strides toward the target 2% level. In that regard, there are still some inlays toward reaching the Fed’s loftiest price goals.

As per the latest Consumer Price Index (CPI) report, things are improving, albeit not at the pace many wish. The December CPI report, released earlier in January, showed a 0.1% monthly decline in prices. Meanwhile, year-over-year (YOY) inflation fell to 6.5%, a far cry from the 9.1% peak inflation from last summer. Core inflation (excluding food and energy) also made meaningful progress, rising 0.3% in December and 5.7% over the past year. This is, by all accounts, a promising sign that prices are beginning to reign in.

However, things like unemployment — which remained notably strong in 2022 — have yet to come along for the ride. Sticky unemployment is no new phenomenon, however. As long as unemployment remains low, the risk of a wage-price spiral is elevated.

Wendy Edelberg of the Hamilton Project believes unemployment will need to increase to reach the Fed-accepted inflation level:

“What I’m very confident is that we can’t continue to see employment gains of more than 200,000 every month. Given our population, given how many people want to work, that’s just not where we’re going to settle down.”

On the date of publication, Shrey Dua did not hold (either directly or indirectly) any positions in the securities mentioned in this article. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, subject to the Publishing Guidelines.

With degrees in economics and journalism, Shrey Dua leverages his ample experience in media and reporting to contribute well-informed articles covering everything from financial regulation and the electric vehicle industry to the housing market and monetary policy. Shrey’s articles have featured in the likes of Morning Brew, Real Clear Markets, the Downline Podcast, and more.

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