ECONOMY

Fed keeps interest rates unchanged, vows to be 'patient' on future hikes

The Federal Reserve left the key U.S. lending rate unchanged on Wednesday, and said it would be "patient" about making any further changes, in the clearest signal yet the central bank has heeded concerns about the economy.

Although the Fed expects continued expansion of the economy and strong jobs growth are the "most likely outcomes," the statement signaled the growing uncertainty about the outlook.

"In light of global economic and financial developments and muted inflation pressures, the committee will be patient as it determines" the timing and need for any further increases, the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee said.

"Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. In support of these goals, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 2-1/4 to 2-1/2 percent," the statement added.

The Fed has been gradually reducing its bond portfolio, a move that has likely contributed to higher borrowing rates. But at some point, to avoid weakening the economy, it could slow that process or end it sooner than now envisioned. Doing so would help keep a lid on loan rates and help support the economy.

The Fed's cautionary words about rates mark a softening from its previous meeting, when it appeared to leave open the prospect of further increases soon. With pressures on the U.S. economy rising — a global slowdown, a trade war with China, a nervous stock market — the Fed under Chairman Jerome Powell has been signaling that it's in no hurry to resume raising rates after having done so four times in 2018. And with inflation remaining tame, the rationale to tighten credit has become less compelling.

Still, the Fed is having to maintain a delicate balancing act because some gauges of the economy look healthy. The job market, for example, remains robust, with solid and steady hiring. And corporate earnings have so far been holding up in the face of the global slowdown and trade conflicts. Of the companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 that have reported results for the final three months of 2018, 77 percent have delivered earnings growth that topped Wall Street's forecasts. Some, though, are lowering expectations for 2019.

The note of patience about rate hikes that the Fed is signaling marks a reversal from a theme Powell had sounded at a news conference after the Fed's previous policy meeting in December. In that appearance, he left open the possibility that the Fed would continue to tighten credit this year. The chairman's message upset investors, who had expected a more reassuring theme, and sent stock prices tumbling.

Since then, Powell and others on the Fed's policymaking committee have been clear in suggesting that they're in no rush to raise rates again after having done so nine times over the past three years. Besides invoking the word "patient" to describe the Fed's outlook toward future hikes, Powell has stressed there's no "preset course" for rate increases. The Fed, in other words, will tailor its rate policy to the latest economic data.

The assurances from the Fed have helped allay fears that higher borrowing costs might depress corporate earnings and economic growth. They have also helped spur a stock market rally. With the turnaround, stocks are on pace for their best month since March 2016.

In recent weeks the Fed has been hamstrung in its effort to assess the health of the economy. That's because the partial shutdown of the government that has ended late last week — at least until mid-February — essentially closed the Commerce and Treasury departments, among other agencies. So key economic data that those departments normally issue — involving retail sales, home construction and factory orders, among others — hasn't been available to the Fed. Beginning Thursday, though, the government will start gradually distributing the delayed economic reports.

The economic impact of the partial government shutdown will be among topics Powell will face at his news conference, in addition to the global slowdown, the U.S.-China conflict and Britain's struggles to achieve a smooth exit from the European Union. All those threats could potentially jeopardize the Fed policymakers' outlook for this year.

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