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Fed to Tighten With Big Hike, Asset Runoff: Decision-Day Guide

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(Bloomberg) — Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell is poised to unleash the U.S. central bank’s most aggressive action to battle inflation in decades, but investors will be focused on parsing his words to see if even bigger moves are ahead.

The Federal Open Market Committee is expected to raise interest rates by a half point at the conclusion of its two-day policy meeting on Wednesday, its largest hike since 2000, and also announce plans to reduce the size of its bloated $8.9 trillion balance sheet. The panel will issue its statement at 2 p.m. in Washington. Powell will hold his first in-person press conference in two years 30 minutes later.

“We know they want to front-load the tightening,” said Ellen Gaske, economist at PGIM Fixed Income. “They are catching up with reality and are trying to get ahead of any entrenchment of inflation expectations. The real question is how high does the federal funds rate need to go to moderate some of the frothiness we are seeing.”

A 50 basis-point increase would be the largest since Alan Greenspan’s tenure as chairman. Add in the impact of shrinking the balance sheet and the scale of the policy shift recalls the 1980s measures of his predecessor, Paul Volcker, reflecting central bankers’ sense of urgency to bring down inflation at the highest level in four decades. 

Markets have priced in such a move — and some investors are betting on an even larger 75 basis-point hike in June. 

Rate Hike

The FOMC will likely be presented with three options during the closed-door discussions that also included a 75 basis-point increase. But the odds of a surprise are low, said Roberto Perli, head of global policy research at Piper Sandler & Co. Because Wednesday’s moves have been well telegraphed, investors’ focus on the rate path will turn to Powell’s press conference, he said.

“People are going to pay attention to the tone Powell will strike,” Perli said. “It’s likely he will remain fairly hawkish and not rule out anything.” 

What Bloomberg Economics Says

“We believe that after the FOMC hikes by a half-point in May and presents a detailed plan to reduce the Fed balance sheet — to start imminently — Powell will avoid definitive guidance about the size of future hikes, as policy makers assess how the runoff is affecting the economy in coming months.”

— Anna Wong, Yelena Shulyatyeva, Andrew Husby and Eliza Winger (economists)

FOMC Statement

The statement may repeat the loose guidance that “ongoing increases” in rates will be appropriate without detailing the size or pace. While the FOMC may acknowledge that reported growth has slowed following last week’s disappointing gross domestic product report, the statement could say consumer spending has been solid and job gains have remained strong.

While most economists expect relatively modest changes, the committee could tweak its language if it wants to show greater urgency in the inflation fight. One option would be to say the Fed wants to raise rates “expeditiously” to a neutral setting, which is neither stimulative nor restraining, said Robert Dent, Nomura Securities economist. Fed officials have recently used that word repeatedly and view neutral as around 2.4%. 

On employment, the FOMC could consider saying it expects “labor market imbalances to improve,” an acknowledgement that leaders see the job market as overheated, he added.

Economists say it’s possible there could be a dissent in favor of a 75 basis-point hike, following St. Louis Fed President James Bullard’s objection in March, though Bullard in his public comments has said he doesn’t think that size of an increase is necessary right now. The more dovish policy makers have embraced a half-point cut in advance of the meeting.

Balance Sheet Update

The FOMC is likely to announce its long-awaited plans to shrink its balance sheet starting with runoff of maturing securities, which Powell has said could come at this meeting.

The committee has discussed reductions at a maximum monthly pace of $60 billion in Treasuries and $35 billion in mortgage-backed securities, according to minutes of the March meeting. That works out to be more than $1 trillion a year, in line with market expectations and nearly double the peak rate of $50 billion a month the last time the Fed trimmed its balance sheet from 2017 to 2019. 

Governor Lael Brainard, recently confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be Fed vice chair, said reductions could come as soon as June. Most economists expect runoff to start in May, with cuts of $20 billion in Treasuries and $15 billion in MBS, reaching the maximum caps over three months, according to a Bloomberg survey.

Delaying the full implementation for three months might be contentious, said Diane Swonk, Grant Thornton LLP chief economist.  “That puts full balance sheet runoff until Labor Day. That is a long time if reversing the balance sheet is really a part of the Fed’s inflation tool box.”

Press Conference

Powell is likely to be pressed on the pace and size of future rate increases, including whether he would consider a 75 basis-point hike that was last done in 1994 by Greenspan.

“The big question: will Powell elevate his call for action, boosting expectations for an even larger rate hike come June?” said Stifel Nicolaus & Co. Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza. “With growth already slowing in the first quarter and recession risks on the rise, it will be difficult for the Fed to make the argument to continue rate hikes at such an aggressive pace, let alone intensify the size of increases.”

In past questioning, Powell has said he would keep all options on the table while emphasizing that any moves would be dependent on incoming data. The chair’s blunt style of speaking has sometimes led to big price moves.

“It’s hard to calibrate words carefully when people are so focused on every single word,” Perli said. “That could create some volatility. That could create some misinterpretation.”

The chair is also likely to face questions about growing risks of recession, with Goldman Sachs Group Inc (NYSE:GS). economists estimating 35% odds and Deutsche Bank (ETR:DBKGn) predicting a severe decline.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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