Fed Expected to Announce Plan to Slow Bond Buying Amid Rapid Inflation

on Nov2
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Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, is on the cusp of accomplishing something that would have seemed like a victory a year ago: Central bankers are expected to announce a plan to wean the economy off their asset-buying program on Wednesday without roiling markets, a delicate maneuver that was in no way assured.

Instead, Mr. Powell and his colleagues face pressing questions about their next steps.

Inflation is running at its fastest pace in roughly three decades, and hopes that the jump in prices will quickly fade have dimmed as supply chain snarls deepen and fuel costs rise. Wages are increasing swiftly, and consumers and businesses are coming to expect faster price increases, pumping up the risk that high inflation will become a fixture as employers and workers adjust their behavior.

Though the Fed is expected to announce this week that it will slow the $120 billion in asset purchases it has been carrying out each month to support the economy, Wall Street economists have already turned their attention to how worried the central bank is about brisk inflation and whether — and when — it might start raising interest rates in response.

“The question in the mind of the market is 100 percent what comes next,” said Roberto Perli, a former Fed economist who is now head of global policy at Cornerstone Macro.

Slowing bond buying could lead to slightly higher long-term borrowing costs and take pressure off the economy at the margin. But raising interest rates would likely have a more powerful effect when it comes to cooling off the economy. A higher federal funds rate would cause the cost of buying a car, a house or a piece of equipment to rise and would slow consumer and business demand. That could tamp down price gains by allowing supply to catch up to spending, but it would slow growth and weigh on hiring in the process.

The Fed has signaled that bond buying could wrap up completely by the middle of next year. Economists increasingly expect the Fed to move its policy rate up from near-zero, where it has been since March 2020, as soon as next summer.

Goldman Sachs economists now expect a rate increase to come in July 2022, a full year earlier than they had previously anticipated. Deutsche Bank recently pulled its forecast forward to December 2022. Investors as a whole now put better than 50 percent odds on a rate increase by the Fed’s June 2022 meeting, based on a CME Group tool that tracks market pricing.

But raising rates poses a risky trade-off for Fed policymakers. If inflation moderates as the economy gets back to normal and pandemic-related disruptions smooth out, higher borrowing costs could leave fewer people employed for little reason. And with a smaller number of paychecks going out each month, demand would likely weaken over the longer run, which could drag inflation back to the uncomfortably low levels that prevailed before the start of the pandemic.

“The risk is not really about the Fed beginning its rate hikes behind the curve,” said Skanda Amarnath, executive director of Employ America, a group focused on encouraging policies that help the work force. “The risk is that the Fed overreacts to this.”

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