Fed Officials Likely to Raise Rates in June, but Next Move Uncertain -- 2nd Update

By Nick Timiraos Features Dow Jones Newswires

Federal Reserve officials are set to raise short-term interest rates at their meeting in two weeks but could defer the following expected rate move in September if Congress roils markets by delaying action on raising the federal government's debt ceiling.

Continue Reading Below

The possibility that Congress and the White House might have trouble reaching agreement in September to raise the federal debt limit and approve government funding for the year beginning Oct. 1 has surfaced as a new source of uncertainty in recent weeks.

Since raising rates in March, many officials have said they probably would want to lift rates twice more, likely in June and September. After that, some officials have said they might pause rate increases to start the process of slowly shrinking the Fed's $4.5 trillion portfolio of bonds and other assets at year-end before resuming rate increases in 2018.

Now, the looming debt-limit fight has some officials pondering whether they might delay the third rate increase until after September or initiate the portfolio wind-down sooner, perhaps as early as September, if a rancorous fiscal fight threatens to disturb markets.

For now, though, Fed policy is on a smooth track. At their May meeting, officials forged consensus around a strategy for slowly and predictably reducing the balance sheet of Treasury securities and mortgages by allowing a small number of assets to mature every month without reinvesting any proceeds, according to interviews and their public statements.

The Fed would start by allowing a small amount of net maturities per month and allow that amount to rise each quarter. It hasn't yet outlined those amounts. Officials are unlikely to say how big the portfolio will be at the end of the process until it is further along.

Continue Reading Below

The agreement on this approach could be announced as soon as June 14, after the Fed's two-day policy meeting.

Officials are likely to vote then to raise their benchmark short-term rate by a quarter percentage point to a range between 1% and 1.25%. They also will release new economic and rate projections for the rest of the year, which will likely indicate they still expect to raise rates again later this year.

The Fed's path ahead is "the most telegraphed monetary policy of our lifetimes," San Francisco Fed President John Williams said Monday at a conference in Singapore.

Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen is set to take questions from reporters after the June meeting, which would let her explain the central bank's intentions in detail.

Officials want the process of shrinking the balance sheet to be predictable and boring, with lots of advance notice to markets, "the policy equivalent of watching paint dry," Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker said last week.

They want to avoid a rerun of the 2013 "taper tantrum," when investor concerns over the Fed's decision to slow the pace of asset purchases triggered market turmoil, leading to a sharp increase in Treasury yields and capital outflows from emerging markets.

The Fed stopped adding to the balance sheet more than three years ago, but has been reinvesting the proceeds of maturing assets to keep its holdings steady. Those reinvestments have helped to hold down long-term interest rates, and allowing them to roll off without reinvestment could push up long-term rates.

Markets have largely shrugged off the details of the plans as officials have dribbled them out, giving the Fed a green light to finalize them.

Clarity on the plans for June have given officials time to look ahead to when to next raise rates and when to implement the balance-sheet strategy. The looming debt-limit fight is one potential complication.

Standoffs between Republicans and the Obama administration repeatedly pushed the envelope on debt-ceiling brinkmanship, unsettling markets. This is the first time the Trump administration navigates the issue with sometimes unruly GOP congressional majorities.

The deadlines have been well known for months, but it isn't clear how Congress and the administration will resolve the issue. One sign of the new administration's unpredictability came earlier this month after President Donald Trump agreed to a short-term funding bill. Mr. Trump said on Twitter the U.S. might benefit from a "good shutdown" this fall to force a confrontation over government spending.

The Treasury Department began employing emergency cash-conservation steps in March to avoid breaching the federal borrowing limit, set at $19.9 trillion, after a 16-month suspension of the debt ceiling expired.

Analysts initially said those steps might last into the fall, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin last week asked Congress to raise the borrowing limit before lawmakers head home for their August recess. White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told lawmakers that was necessary because federal receipts have been coming in "a little bit slower than expected," whittling down the Treasury's cash balance.

Congress also must reach agreement to extend government funding that expires Sept. 30, creating the potential for additional wrangling.

In 2011, Standard & Poor's downgraded the U.S. triple-A credit rating for the first time after the Treasury came within days of being unable to pay some bills. In 2013, the U.S. government endured a 16-day-long shutdown that ended with a bill to extend the debt limit. Congress agreed to the most recent extension in October 2015 after then-House Speaker John Boehner cut a deal with the White House shortly before resigning from Congress.

Fed officials have changed plans before when political uncertainty threatened to stir financial turbulence. They had tentatively planned to raise rates last June, but held off out of concern the U.K. vote on leaving the European Union might cause market upheaval. They waited until after the U.S. presidential election before raising rates at the end of 2016.

Another issue for Fed officials to consider is the recent slowdown in inflation. They indicated at their May 2-3 meeting they were prepared to look past a surprise ebbing in March, and overall prices partially rebounded in April. But prices excluding food and energy in the Fed's preferred inflation gauge were up just 1.5% on the year in April, the weakest reading since the end of 2015, according to Commerce Department data released Tuesday.

If the recent slowdown persists, officials may need to "reassess the expected path" of short-term rates, said Fed governor Lael Brainard in a speech in New York on Tuesday. She added, "It is premature to make that call today."

The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note settled at 2.217% on Tuesday, near the lowest level of the year, on investors' expectations softer inflation might prompt the Fed to move more slowly in raising interest rates.

Several officials currently place more emphasis on the strong labor market. Steady job gains have pushed a range of employment measures to their sturdiest levels in nearly a decade, including an unemployment rate at 4.4% in April. The May employment report is scheduled for release Friday.

Officials say they remain confident such low unemployment will be enough to lift inflation toward their 2% target in coming years, meeting the Fed's twin objectives of stable prices and maximum, sustainable employment.

"The U.S. economy is about as close to the Fed's dual mandate goals as we've ever been," Mr. Williams said Monday. In reaching those targets, "it is better to close in on the target carefully and avoid substantial overshooting," he said.

Write to Nick Timiraos at nick.timiraos@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 30, 2017 19:18 ET (23:18 GMT)