Red-hot inflation could push Fed closer to half-point rate hike in March

Traders pricing in dramatic rate hike in March after hotter-than-expected inflation report

The hotter-than-expected January inflation report could force the Federal Reserve to kick off its interest-rate hikes next month with the steepest increase in two decades. 

Traders are now pricing in an 85% chance of a hefty half-point rate jump when policymakers meet next month, instead of a more modest quarter-point increase, according to the CME's FedWatch tool. It would mark the first time since 2000 that the U.S. central bank raised the federal funds rate by 50 basis points. The Fed has not raised rates since December 2018.


The more aggressive outlook comes after the Labor Department said on Thursday morning that the consumer price index rose 7.5% in January from a year ago, marking the fastest increase since February 1982, when inflation hit 7.6%. The CPI – which measures a bevy of goods ranging from gasoline and health care to groceries and rents – jumped 0.6% in the one-month period from December.

Economists expected the index to show that prices surged 7.3% in January from the previous year and 0.5% on a monthly basis.

"The Fed has made it clear that high inflation is the biggest risk to the economy’s progress," said Callie Cox, U.S. investment analyst at eToro. "And this data point shows that the Fed needs to step in and manage inflation before they risk losing control of the economy."

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, one of the central bank's more hawkish policymakers and voting member of the FOMC this year, lent credence to the idea on Thursday, telling Bloomberg News that he wants to see "100 basis points in the bag by July 1." Under that timeline, the Fed would possibly have to factor in a super-sized hike. 

"I was already more hawkish but I have pulled up dramatically what I think the committee should do," Bullard said. 

For months, the Fed has been wrestling with its dual mandate of stable prices and full employment. But the nation's jobless rate is currently at 4%, down from a pandemic high of 14.7%, while consumer prices surged from a year ago.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell pauses during a news conference in Washington on Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta/File / AP Newsroom)

The Fed's next meeting is scheduled for March 15-16. After that, it has six more meetings in 2022 in May, June, July, September, November and December.  

Some economists believe the Fed waited too long to confront the burst in inflation, while others have expressed concerns that moving too quickly to stabilize prices risks slowing hiring and potentially leaving many workers, particularly lower-income Americans, without a job. Hiking interest rates tends to create higher rates on consumers and business loans, which slows the economy by forcing employers to cut back on spending. 


Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has left open the possibility of a rate hike at every meeting this year and has refused to rule out a more aggressive, half-percentage point rate increase, but he said it's important to be "humble and nimble." 

"We’re going to be led by the incoming data and the evolving outlook," Powell told reporters during the Fed's January meeting.