Pesky Oil Prices Are Messing With Fed’s Ability to Stick the Landing

Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell has met his match in the ongoing fight against inflation: skyrocketing oil costs.

(Photo by Federal Reserve Board of Governors under Public Domain Mark 1.0)

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The Federal Reserve hit pause… for now.

On Wednesday, the Fed left interest rates unchanged as expected, but the central bank had to acknowledge that its inflation-fighting has yet to triumph and at least one more rate hike might come before the year’s end. And if you were banking on big cuts to come in 2024, you didn’t hear anything reassuring.

Wait and See

The Fed started raising interest rates from near zero in March 2022 to combat inflation and has issued 10 more hikes since then as consumer spending and overall economic growth have proven a little too resilient. Now, the economy faces a “higher for longer” rate scenario that raises the risk that an ideal soft-landing scenario (i.e., no recession) won’t materialize.

At 3.7%, inflation is way down from last year’s high of 9% — but that’s still nowhere near the Fed’s target rate of 2%, and the question now is how much lower it can really get in the wake of surging oil prices. The cost of a barrel of crude has jumped nearly 40% in less than three months to return to its level of November 2022 — when the inflation rate was still an eye-popping 7.1%. Given that reality, Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s message at his news conference Wednesday was something akin to “we’re not saying we’ve failed, but we’re not saying we’ve succeeded.”

For now, it’s a waiting game, with optimism slightly dented, and interest rates unlikely to fall back to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon:

  • Powell pointed to many factors creating uncertainty — the resumption of student loan payments, auto worker strikes, rising gas prices, a possible government shutdown — and making it difficult to determine how they’ll all work together to affect his goals of maximizing employment and stabilizing prices.
  • For its latest Summary of Economic Projections — the “dot plot” — agency officials expect one more quarter-point rate hike this year, followed by two quarter-point rate cuts in 2024. That marks a drop in inflation-shrinking optimism, as the federal funds rate is likely to close out 2024 at 5.1%, not the 4.6% the agency had predicted this past June.

What did Wall Street Think? None of the major indexes took the news all too well as the Dow dipped 0.2%, the S&P 500 fell almost 1%, and Nasdaq dropped 1.5% by the market close Wednesday. Granted, these were all fairly expected outcomes, but Seema Shah of Principal Asset Management told Bloomberg that the real interesting information came in the 2024 forecast. “The dot plot for next year has certainly rammed home the message of higher [rates] for longer and reflects the continued wariness and fear of an inflation resurgence if [the Fed] takes the foot off the brake too soon and too quickly.”