The widening chasm between market expectations and the interest-rate path the Fed laid out just two months ago underscores the biggest question facing US central bankers: How much weight to give a growing number of potential red flags, even as robust US economic growth continues to push down unemployment and create jobs?
“We are at a point now where we really need to be especially data dependent,” Richard Clarida, the Fed’s newly appointed vice chair, said in a CNBC interview. “I think certainly where the economy is today, and the Fed’s projection of where it’s going, that being at neutral would make sense,” he added, defining “neutral” as the policy rate somewhere between 2.5 percent and 3.5 percent.
Such a range implies anywhere from two to six more rate hikes, and Clarida declined to say how many he would prefer.
He did say he is optimistic that US productivity is rising, a view that suggests he would not see faster economic or wage growth as necessarily feeding into higher inflation or, necessarily, requiring tighter policy. But he also sounded a mild warning.
“There is some evidence of global slowing,” Clarida said. “That’s something that is going to be relevant as I think about the outlook for the US economy, because it impacts big parts of the economy through trade and through capital markets and the like.”
Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas President Robert Kaplan, in a separate interview with Fox Business, also said he is seeing a growth slowdown in Europe and China.
“It’s my own judgment that global growth is going to be a little bit of a headwind, and it may spill over to the United States,” Kaplan said.
The Fed raised interest rates three times this year and is expected to raise its target again next month, to a range of 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent. As of September, Fed policymakers expected to need to increase rates three more times next year, a view they will update next month.
Over the last week, betting in contracts tied to the Fed’s policy suggests that even two rate hikes might be a stretch. The yield on fed fund futures maturing in January 2020, seen by some as an end-point for the Fed’s current rate-hike cycle, dropped sharply to just 2.76 percent over six trading days.
At the same time, long-term inflation expectations have been dropping quickly as well. The so-called breakeven inflation rate on Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, or TIPS, has fallen sharply in the last month. The breakeven rate on five-year TIPS US5YTIP=RR hit the lowest since late 2017 earlier this week.
Those market moves together suggest traders are taking the prospect of a slowdown seriously, limiting how far the Fed will end up raising rates.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Fed chief Patrick Harker also sounded a skeptical note.
“At this point I’m not convinced a December rate move is the right move,” he was quoted as saying, citing muted inflation readings.
But not all policymakers seemed that worried.
Sitting with his back to a map of the world in a ballroom in Chicago’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans downplayed risks to his outlook, noting that the leveraged loans that some of his colleagues have raised concerns about are being taken out by “big boys and girls” who understand the risks.
He told reporters he still believes rates should rise to about 3.25 percent so as to mildly restrain growth and bring unemployment, now at 3.7 percent, back up to a more sustainable level.
Asked about risks from the global slowdown, he said he hears more talk about it but that it is not really in the numbers yet. But the next six months, he said, bear close watching.
“There’s not a great headline” about risks to the economy right now, Evans told reporters. “International is a little slower; Brexit – nobody’s asked me about that, thank you; (the slowing) housing market: I think all of those are in the mix for uncertainties that everybody’s facing,” he said.
“But at the moment, it’s not enough to upset or adjust the trajectory that I have in mind.”
Still, Evans added, the risks should not be counted out: “They could take on more life more easily because they are sort of more top of mind, if not in the forecast.”