Fed Sets Course for Milder Interest-Rate Rise in February

Federal Reserve officials are preparing to slow interest-rate increases for the second straight meeting and debate how much higher to raise them after gaining more confidence inflation will ease further this year.

They could begin deliberating at the Jan. 31-Feb. 1 gathering how much more softening in labor demand, spending and inflation they would need to see before pausing rate rises this spring.

In recent public statements and interviews, Fed officials have said slowing the pace of rate increases to a more traditional quarter percentage point would give them more time to assess the impact of their increases so far as they determine where to stop.

Officials called attention to how it takes time for the full effect of higher rates to cool economic activity when they stepped down to a half-point rate rise in December, following four consecutive increases of 0.75 point.

“And that logic is very applicable today,” said Fed Vice Chair Lael Brainard in remarks last week. Raising rates in smaller increments “gives us the ability to absorb more data…and probably better land at a sufficiently restrictive level.”

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To combat high inflation last year, the Fed reeled off the most rapid series of rate rises since the early 1980s, raising its benchmark federal-funds rate by 4.25 percentage points. A quarter-point increase next month would bring the rate to a range between 4.5% and 4.75%.

Most Fed officials projected in December the rate would rise to a peak between 5% and 5.25%. That would imply two more quarter-point increases after the likely bump next month. Investors in interest-rate futures markets expect the Fed to make two more quarter-point increases—at the coming meeting and again at the Fed’s subsequent meeting in mid-March, according to CME Group.

The Fed raised rates seven times last year. The likely decision to approve a smaller increase in February reflects officials’ growing confidence that the economy is responding to their efforts to curb demand and bring down inflation.

In recent weeks, government data and business surveys have pointed to a steeper drop-off in manufacturing activity and new orders for service-sector firms as well as a pullback in consumer spending on goods.

The central bank’s rate increases are aimed at slowing inflation by reducing demand, “and there is ample evidence that this is exactly what is going on in the business sector,” Fed governor Christopher Waller, an early and vocal advocate for aggressive rate rises last year, said on Friday. Mr. Waller said he would favor a quarter-point rate rise at the coming meeting.

The Commerce Department is set to release this week the December figures for the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, the personal-consumption expenditures price index. Excluding food and energy prices, the so-called core PCE index likely rose 4.5% from a year earlier and at a 3.1% three-month annualized rate in December, Ms. Brainard said.

Officials could use their postmeeting statement on Feb. 1 to indicate they expect to continue raising rates as they probe where to pause. But they are unlikely to provide precise guidance because coming decisions will depend heavily on new data about the economy.

Some have also suggested that even if they hold rates steady this summer, they will indicate they remain more likely to lift rates than to cut them. After the Fed pauses, “we’ll need to remain flexible and raise rates further if changes in the economic outlook or financial conditions call for it,” said Dallas Fed President Lorie Logan in a recent speech.

At the coming meeting, officials could deliberate two important questions: How long does it take for the full effects of the Fed’s rate rises to influence hiring and overall economic demand? And how much could inflation slow due to other factors such as easing supply-chain bottlenecks or lower costs of fuel and other commodities?

Some could call for delaying any pause if the economy doesn’t weaken much in the months ahead. They think the time between when the Fed raises rates and when they slow the economy is relatively short and the economy will soon feel the worst of any policy-induced slowdown.

Others could argue for a somewhat earlier pause, believing the effects take longer to play out or could be more pot

Divisions have surfaced. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said recently he would prefer a larger half-point rate increase at the coming meeting because he doesn’t think rates are high enough to thoroughly beat inflation. “You’d probably have to get over 5% to say with a straight face that we’ve got the right level,” he said in an interview. “Why not go to where we’re supposed to go?…Why stall and not quite get to that level?”

Several of his colleagues have argued for greater flexibility to see if the easing of pandemic- and war-related disruptions brings inflation down more rapidly. As evidence builds that higher rates are working as intended, “why would we try to…really put the clamps down on the economy and really risk losing the good things we have going, like the labor market?” Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker said last week. “I just don’t see doing that.”

Fed officials have long expected inflation to fall as supply-chain bottlenecks and commodity-market disruptions eased, but inflation instead rose through the first half of 2022 before moving sideways, according to the Commerce Department’s gauge.

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