BREAKING: Federal Reserve rates steady near zero and will be that way for years to come

Who Jerome Powell?

Federal Reserve ended its two-day policy meeting Wednesday afternoon

Federal Reserve policymakers met Wednesday for the first time since they significantly revised the Fed’s operating framework in ways that will likely keep short-term interest rates near zero for years to come.

The Fed will keep its benchmark rate unchanged at least until 2023, according to a CNBC report. It has been pegged at nearly zero since March after the pandemic and the measures taken to contain it essentially shut down the economy. Short-term rates will remain targeted at 0%-0.25%. Officials also changed their economic forecasts to reflect a smaller decline in GDP and a lower unemployment rate in 2020.

ExploreFrom April: Federal Reserve will dole out $2 trillion in emergency funds for business, local governments

Powell issued the Fed’s new framework at a virtual meeting of economists and central bankers last month. The changes are significant, though some analysts have complained that details of how the changes will be implemented are lacking.

In one key shift, the Fed will no longer follow its longtime practice of raising its benchmark interest rate simply because the unemployment rate has fallen to a low level that could spur inflation. Instead, it will wait for actual evidence that prices are rising. That reflects a view among some high-ranking Fed officials that economic models it has used in the past no longer accurately reflect how the economy works.

As a result, the committee addressed a new policy regime in which the Fed will allow inflation to run somewhat above the 2% target rate before hiking rates to control inflation.

The Federal Open Market Committee adopted specific language to emphasize the inflation goal.

“With inflation running persistently below this longer run goal, the Committee will aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2 percent for some time so that inflation averages 2 percent over time and longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored at 2 percent. The Committee expects to maintain an accommodative stance of monetary policy until these outcomes are achieved,” the post-meeting statement said

Instead, low unemployment and even rising wages no longer necessarily push up inflation, Fed officials believe. With most consumers and businesses accustomed to mild price increases, they have adjusted their behavior in ways that act to keep inflation low. Businesses, for example, facing increased global competition, are less likely to pass on higher labor costs to customers.

FILE - A Federal Reserve survey of U.S. economic activity released on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, found generally modest gains in August but also pessimism about the future given the threats posed by the coronavirus. Patrick Semansky, File/ AP Photo
FILE - A Federal Reserve survey of U.S. economic activity released on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, found generally modest gains in August but also pessimism about the future given the threats posed by the coronavirus. Patrick Semansky, File/ AP Photo

Credit: Patrick Semansky

Credit: Patrick Semansky

Lael Brainard, a member of the Fed's Board of Governors, said earlier this month that if such a policy had been in place in 2015, the Fed likely wouldn't have started lifting rates that year. Many economists believe that 2015 hike pushed up the value of the dollar, which increased the price of U.S. goods overseas and made imports cheaper, harming U.S. manufacturers.

Investors don't expect the Fed to hike its benchmark interest rate until at least 2024, so Fed policymakers don't feel a lot of pressure to provide further details, economists say. In remarks following Powell's announcement of the new framework, several Fed officials said they want to see more signs of how the economy is recovering from the coronavirus recession before making final decisions about the Fed's next steps.

Economists expect the Fed will, in the coming months, sharpen the guidance it provides about its future actions. That guidance could specify that the Fed won't hike its benchmark rate until after inflation meets or exceeds its 2% goal.

A third major change to the Fed's framework, also announced last month, is that Fed officials have boosted their commitment to keeping interest rates low until the unemployment rate falls as low as it can without spurring inflation, a level the Fed calls “maximum employment."

The goal of reaching maximum employment is a "broad-based and inclusive goal," the Fed said in its new framework. That language suggests that Fed officials will consider the unemployment rates of Blacks and Hispanics as well as the overall jobless rate when contemplating interest rate hikes, something the Fed has never considered before.

“That is what is unique and new," said Diane Swonk, a longtime Fed watcher and chief economist at Grant Thornton, a tax advisory firm. That goal makes it more likely the Fed holds down rates until unemployment falls to very low levels, which allows workers to demand higher pay, potentially delivering more benefits to workers and less to corporation's bottom lines.

The shift is an indirect acknowledgement by the Fed of “growing inequality,” said Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics.