Fed Holds Rates Steady Citing Global Economic Weakness

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Federal Reserve
Manuel Balce Ceneta/APFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
By Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Federal Reserve kept interest rates unchanged Thursday in a bow to worries about the global economy, financial market volatility and sluggish inflation at home, but left open the possibility of a modest policy tightening later this year.

In what amounted to a tactical retreat, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said in a press conference that developments in a tightly linked global economy had in effect forced the U.S. central bank's hand.

The U.S. economy has been performing well enough to perhaps justify a rate hike "and we expect it to continue to do so," Yellen said shortly after the Fed's policy-setting committee released its latest statement following a two-day meeting.

But Yellen added that "the outlook abroad appears to have become less certain," driving down U.S. %VIRTUAL-pullquote-In light of the heightened uncertainty abroad ... the committee judged it appropriate to wait.%equity prices, pushing up the dollar, and tightening financial conditions in a way that may slow U.S. growth regardless of what the Fed does.

"In light of the heightened uncertainty abroad ... the committee judged it appropriate to wait," Yellen said. "Given the significant economic and financial interconnections between the U.S. and the rest of the world, the situation abroad bears close watching."

The policy statement also nodded squarely to international events as a decisive variable within Yellen's "data-dependent" Fed.

"Recent global economic and financial developments may restrain economic activity somewhat and are likely to put further downward pressure on inflation in the near term," the statement said.

However, the Fed maintained its bias towards a rate hike sometime this year, while lowering its long-term outlook for the economy.

Fresh economic projections showed 13 of 17 Fed policymakers foresee raising rates at least once in 2015, down from 15 at the last meeting in June. Four policymakers now say rates shouldn't be raised until at least 2016, compared to two who felt that way in June.

The Fed has policy meetings in October and December.

In deciding when to hike rates, the Fed repeated it wanted to see "some further improvement in the labor market," and be "reasonably confident" that inflation will increase.

The dollar fell against a basket of currencies after the release of the statement, trading about 1 percent lower against the euro. Stocks initially edged higher before turning lower in choppy trade, while prices for U.S. Treasuries rose.

'More Dovish'

Taken as a whole, the latest Fed projections of slower GDP growth, low unemployment and continuing low inflation suggest that concerns of a so-called secular stagnation may be taking root among policymakers. One policymaker even suggested a negative federal funds rate.

The median projection of the 17 policymakers showed the Fed expects the economy to grow 2.1 percent this year, slightly faster than previously thought. However, its forecasts for GDP growth in 2016 and 2017 were downgraded.

The Fed also forecast inflation would creep only slowly toward its 2 percent target even as unemployment dips lower than previously expected. It sees the unemployment rate hitting 4.8 percent next year and remaining at that level for as long as three years.

The Fed's projected interest rate path shifted downward, with the long-run federal funds rate now seen at 3.5 percent, compared to 3.75 percent at the last policy meeting.

"The Fed has become more dovish, with growth projections revised down amid rumblings of 'secular stagnation.' But there's a clear signal that, in the absence of any serious derailing of the economy, rates will rise before the year is out," said Chris Williamson of financial information services firm Markit.

The vote on the policy statement also was a sign of how China's economic slowdown and market slide left Fed officials unnerved about the state of the world economy. Only Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker dissented.

Fed officials like board member Jerome Powell and Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart in recent months had publicly endorsed a September rate hike, forming a near majority along with longstanding inflation hawks like Lacker.

In the end, however, they were left with a muddled picture marked by low U.S. unemployment and steady economic growth, but no sign that inflation has begun to rise towards the Fed's target.

9 Numbers That'll Tell You How the Economy's Really Doing
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Fed Holds Rates Steady Citing Global Economic Weakness
The gross domestic product measures the level of economic activity within a country. To figure the number, the Bureau of Economic Analysis combines the total consumption of goods and services by private individuals and businesses; the total investment in capital for producing goods and services; the total amount spent and consumed by federal, state, and local government entities; and total net exports. It's important, because it serves as the primary gauge of whether the economy is growing or not. Most economists define a recession as two or more consecutive quarters of shrinking GDP.
The CPI measures current price levels for the goods and services that Americans buy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects price data on a basket of different items, ranging from necessities like food, clothing and housing to more discretionary expenses like eating out and entertainment. The resulting figure is then compared to those of previous months to determine the inflation rate, which is used in a variety of ways, including cost-of-living increases for Social Security and other government benefits.
The unemployment rate measures the percentage of workers within the total labor force who don't have a job, but who have looked for work in the past four weeks, and who are available to work. Those temporarily laid off from their jobs are also included as unemployed. Yet as critical as the figure is as a measure of how many people are out of work and therefore suffering financial hardship from a lack of a paycheck, one key item to note about the unemployment rate is that the number does not reflect workers who have stopped looking for work entirely. It's therefore important to look beyond the headline numbers to see whether the overall workforce is growing or shrinking.
The trade deficit measures the difference between the value of a nation's imported and exported goods. When exports exceed imports, a country runs a trade surplus. But in the U.S., imports have exceeded exports consistently for decades. The figure is important as a measure of U.S. competitiveness in the global market, as well as the nation's dependence on foreign countries.
Each month, the Bureau of Economic Analysis measures changes in the total amount of income that the U.S. population earns, as well as the total amount they spend on goods and services. But there's a reason we've combined them on one slide: In addition to being useful statistics separately for gauging Americans' earning power and spending activity, looking at those numbers in combination gives you a sense of how much people are saving for their future.
Consumers play a vital role in powering the overall economy, and so measures of how confident they are about the economy's prospects are important in predicting its future health. The Conference Board does a survey asking consumers to give their assessment of both current and future economic conditions, with questions about business and employment conditions as well as expected future family income.
The health of the housing market is closely tied to the overall direction of the broader economy. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, named for economists Karl Case and Robert Shiller, provides a way to measure home prices, allowing comparisons not just across time but also among different markets in cities and regions of the nation. The number is important not just to home builders and home buyers, but to the millions of people with jobs related to housing and construction.
Most economic data provides a backward-looking view of what has already happened to the economy. But the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index attempts to gauge the future. To do so, the index looks at data on employment, manufacturing, home construction, consumer sentiment, and the stock and bond markets to put together a complete picture of expected economic conditions ahead.
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