The Federal Reserve held interest rates steady at its December meeting on Wednesday, halting a series of rate cuts that lifted markets and countered recession fears amid ongoing trade uncertainty.
Policymakers unanimously agreed to leave rates hovering between 1.5% and 1.75%, describing the policy decision as “appropriate” to help prolong the nation’s economic expansion, now in its 11th year.
The widely expected move falls in line with market expectations as the Fed has signaled it plans to move into an extended pause as it watches to see how the US economy evolves.
Thirteen of the 17 participants on the Federal Open Market Committee’s policy-setting body now anticipate keeping interest rates level in 2020, according to the central bank’s updated forecast. Only four members predicted that rates may need to be raised one notch higher.
That could disappoint President Donald Trump, who spent the past year pressuring Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to lower rates even further, most recently during a meeting at the White House last month. Following that November 18 meeting, Trump said in a tweet he “protested” to Powell that interest rates were too high compared to other countries the US competes with, and has repeatedly blamed him for undermining economic growth.
During a press conference Wednesday, Powell declined to comment on what he discussed with Trump.
But Powell said that he doesn’t think rates need to rise anytime soon. He said the Fed can hold rates steady, because historically unemployment has been able to remain at very low levels for an extended period of time without having an effect on inflation.
Inflation has remained stubbornly low over the past decade. The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that consumer prices were up just 2.1% over the past year, but overall inflation has remained below the Fed’s 2% target range.
The stock market turned positive when Powell suggested rates don’t need to go up. The Dow had spent the entire day in the red before Powell’s comments.
Since the last Fed meeting in October, the Fed chief and his colleagues have been making the case that monetary policy is in a “good place” and probably won’t change for some time unless there is some “material” change.
Powell has pointed to sluggish global growth and persistent trade uncertainty as two threats to the US economy. For the year, the Fed maintained its outlook for the US economy, which it expects to grow at 2.2%, and then slow down to 2% next year.
Although Powell said Wednesday it would be inappropriate for the Fed to adjust monetary policy to counteract short-term market volatility stemming from Trump’s trade wars, he acknowledged that reaching trade deals with China as well as with Mexico and Canada would “remove uncertainty and be a positive for our economy.”
Powell recently described the US economy as a “star performer” and expressed confidence that the expansion can be extended thanks to strong consumer spending and steady job growth.
Following November’s stronger-than-expected jobs report, the Fed also now anticipates the country’s unemployment rate to be slightly lower for the year at 3.6%. Policymakers had previously forecast in September the jobless rate landing at 3.7%.