The Federal Reserve announced a significant change Thursday in how it manages interest rates by saying it plans to keep rates near zero even after inflation has exceeded the Fed’s 2% target level. (Aug. 27)

AP Domestic

The Federal Reserve said Wednesday it will keep its key interest rate near zero until the economy reaches full employment and inflation runs “moderately” tops its 2% goal for “some time,” a vow that economists say is likely to keep rates at rock bottom for the next four to five years.

The central bank made the market-friendly commitment sooner than many top economists anticipated and it’s likely to cheer Wall Street.

The assertion is consistent with the Fed’s new policy framework unveiled last month, which states that officials will no longer preemptively raise rates as unemployment falls to head off a potential spike in inflation down the road. Rather, the Fed will allow inflation to edge above 2% for a time to make up for years of persistently low inflation and to bolster job gains.

“With inflation running persistently below (the Fed’s 2% goal), the Committee will aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2% for some time so that inflation averages 2% over time and longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored at 2%,” the Fed said in a statement after a two day-meeting.

Previously, the Fed said it will maintain near-zero rates “until it is confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum employment and price stability goals.”

The U.S. economy has partially recovered from the coronavirus recession more rapidly than expected, but the Federal Reserve envisions a slog the rest of the way.

Besides keeping its benchmark rate near zero, new Fed forecasts indicate the rate likely will stay there at least through 2023, based on policymakers’ median estimate. That’s a year longer than its previous estimate since the Fed’s forecast horizon was extended. But the promise to keep rates near zero until inflation picks up should maintain rock-bottom rates even longer, economists say.

The Fed now predicts the economy will contract by 3.7% this year, below its 6.5% estimate in June, and the 8.4% unemployment rate will fall to 7.6% by year-end. The Fed previously reckoned the jobless rate would end 2020 at 9.3%.

Yet the economy may be at a crossroads. States are allowing shuttered businesses to reopen, putting furloughed employees back to work and boosting growth. But Congress is deadlocked over a new stimulus to restore enhanced federal unemployment benefits and keep struggling small businesses afloat. The number of permanently laid off workers and bankrupt businesses is rising. And the specter of a second wave of the virus this fall looms.   

A look at the Fed’s views on:

Interest rates

All 17 Fed policymakers prefer no hikes from the near-zero federal funds rate through next year and the median projection is for no increases through 2023. But one official believes a quarter-point rate increase will be warranted in 2022 and four think the first move should come in 2023.

The economy

Fed officials predict the economy will shrink 3.7% this year, less than their 6.5% forecast in June. But they forecast growth of 4% in 2021, down from their prior 5% estimate, and 3% in 2022.

Gross domestic product plunged at a record 31.7% annual rate in the second quarter, a bit better than the initial 32.9% forecast.

The economy has bounced back faster than expected, largely as a result of stronger consumer spending, Goldman Sachs says. While COVID-19 surges in the South and West led some states to pause or reverse reopening plans, hospitalizations and death tolls have improved recently. IHS Market predicts growth of about 30% in the current quarter.

But Barclays says the recovery is likely to slow in the months ahead, in part because a snap-back in auto production to pre-pandemic levels has played out.


Unemployment is projected to fall from the current 8.4% to 7.6% by the end of the year, 5.5% by the end of 2021 and 4.6% by the end of 2022, according Fed officials’ median estimate.

The economy has regained nearly half the 22 million jobs lost in the early days of the pandemic as businesses have reopen but economists say recouping the remainder will be tougher. The number of workers permanently laid off jumped from 2.9 million to 3.4 million in August,  indicating some temporary layoffs have become permanent.


The Fed estimated its preferred measure of annual inflation will close out 2020 at 1.2%, up from its 0.8% forecast in June, before rising to 1.7% in 2021. A core measure that strips out volatile food and energy items is projected to end the year at 1.5%, above officials’ previous 1% prediction.

Inflation has picked up recently, chiefly because of a surge in used car prices and a partial rebound in apparel prices and air fares that were depressed by the effects of the pandemic.

Even before the crisis, inflation was held down for years by discounted online prices and the globally connected marketplace.  The Fed’s new policy framework aims to juice inflation but economists say there’s no guarantee it will work.

 While modest price increases are generally a good thing, persistently low inflation can lead to deflation, or falling prices, that prompts shoppers to put off purchases.

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