Federal Reserve officials held interest rates near zero on Wednesday, but sent the Dow tumbling as it signaled two rate hikes by the end of 2023 amid soaring inflation.
The Dow Jones industrial average lost 300 points after the Fed said it could lift its benchmark interest rate from near zero to 0.6 percent over the next two years. Following the last meeting in March, the central bank said it would keep rates at zero through 2023.
“Progress on vaccinations has reduced the spread of Covid-19 in the United States,” the Fed said in a statement after a two-day policy meeting by its policymaking committee. “Amid this progress and strong policy support, indicators of economic activity and employment have strengthened.”
But the policy tweak also sent already jittery investors into a tizzy over the rapidly rising costs of everyday goods, from meat to gasoline to rental cars.
“Inflation has been the talk of the town for the last several weeks, but now the Fed has validated that talk by signifying rate hikes in 2023,” said Wells Fargo’s Wall Street analyst Mike Mayo.
“I haven’t heard inflation mentioned this much since there was disco, leisure suits, and mood rings in the 1970s,” Mayo said. “Bring back the mood rings and disco balls but not the inflation. The job of the fed is to take the punch bowl away before the disco gets too crazy.”
The Labor Department’s consumer price index shows inflation has risen 5 percent since last May — the highest increase in 13 years — as companies struggle to keep up with surging in demand.
In addition to keeping rates steady at at between zero and 0.25 percent — where they have been since the pandemic shattered the economy in March 2020 — the central bank on Wednesday said it will continue its $120 billion-per-month program of buying Treasury and mortgage bonds to grease the wheels of the still-recovering economy.
But as demand for travel and other services picks up again, 13 of 18 Fed officials said they favored at least one rate increase by the end of 2023 — up from seven in March. Eleven Fed officials said they foresee at least two hikes by the end of 2023 as economic activity heats up.
In March, officials said the earliest they would raise rates is 2024. But the economy has opened up so much since then as vaccinations rose.
The Dow closed down 265 points to 34,033.67. The S&P 500 index ended the day down 04 percent to 4,230.06, while the Nasdaq index of tech stock closed down 0.2 percent to 14,039.68.
Michael Taylor, managing director of CriticalMass Partners, notes that the Fed is making its rate-hike predictions without even knowing the full extent of the potential problem.
“There are certain parts of inflation the fed hasn’t even seen yet,” Taylor said. “The two big ones are wage growth … and rent hikes. But the Fed is starting to prep the deck,” said Taylor, who expects sky-high inflation to continue at least through September.
Fed officials have said they see the price increases fading as companies ramp up workers and supply back to pre-pandemic levels, without saying when.
On Wednesday, Fed chairman Jerome Powell continued to insist rising prices are a “transitory” consequence of the reopening. “Our expectation is these high inflation readings now will abate,” Powell said at a post-meeting news conference.
But if inflation rises above 2 percent for a sustained period of time, it risks becoming a vicious cycle with businesses raising prices in anticipation of more inflation. And even Powell on Wednesday acknowledged “the possibility that inflation could turn out to be higher and more persistent than we anticipate.”
The jobs data is also likely concerning to Fed officials. Since April, employers added 837,000 jobs — 7.6 million fewer than before the pandemic.
The Fed has said it wants to achieve “maximum employment” before it raises rates or decreases its massive bond-buying program.
On the Fed’s bond purchases, Taylor said: “The fact is for the next 18 months they’ll keep printing money. And if the economy stalls they won’t stop. I have no idea how they ever stop printing money. No mechanism for it to stop.”