A massive rate hike by the U.S. Federal Reserve and promises of more to come is fueling warnings that the only way out for the scorching price hikes that have devoured American households is a full-blown recession.
The Fed remains hopeful that it can slow activity and demand and cool the pace of inflation without derailing the world’s largest economy. But doubts about the chances of success are growing.
The central bank raised its benchmark borrowing rate by three-quarters on Wednesday, the largest increase in nearly 30 years, and said a similar move was likely in July.
The outsized rate hike comes at a time when the Federal Reserve is under intense pressure to stem the surge in gasoline, food and housing prices that have stretched millions of Americans beyond their means and sent President Joe Biden’s approval ratings plummeting.
The central bank has raised key interest rates by 1.5 points since March, as a combination of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ongoing Covid-related supply chain problems sent prices rising at their fastest pace in more than 40 years.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said a recession was not the goal, but that “rapidly” lowering inflation was “critical” because it was critical to a healthy economy.
But Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, warned that “it becomes very difficult to penetrate the needle and the Fed will need a Goldilocks scenario where “something falls into place at the right time.”
A healthy U.S. labor market and strong consumer demand, aided by strong savings reserves, are good for the Fed and support economic activity even as the economy cools.
Mortgage rates surged to a 13-year high following the Fed decision, with the average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate home loan hitting 5.78%.
Drivers are still facing gas prices above $5 a gallon, though for the first time in days, the national average fell on Wednesday from Tuesday’s record.
With a shift in prioritizing aggressive tightening of lending conditions — which policymakers see rising to 3.8% next year — the Fed’s best hope now is a “soft landing,” which would include higher unemployment.
“Unemployment of 4.1 percent, inflation well up to 2 percent, and I think that’s going to be a successful outcome,” the Fed chairman said.
But he stressed that “the events of the past few months have heightened the difficulty of achieving a soft landing” and that it is likely “depending on factors beyond our control.”
However, a 0.5% rise in the unemployment rate could be a signal that a recession has begun.
Diane of Grant Thornton, a long-time Fed watcher, called the central bank’s outlook “illusory.