Is the US economy too strong? Why some economists now say no rate cuts this year

Is the US economy too strong? Why some economists now say no rate cuts this year

Mar 01,2024
New York CNN  — 

2024 was supposed to be the year consumers could start breathing again.

After more than 20 months of inflation and higher borrowing costs, investors, economists and — eventually — Federal Reserve officials said they expected the economy to soften this year, allowing the central bank to finally start cutting rates.

But those expectations of a Fed pivot keep getting pushed back. While the market initially expected six rate cuts this year, starting in March, that’s now off the table.

“I don’t think it’s likely that the committee will reach a level of confidence by the time of the March meeting to identify March as the time to do that,” Fed Chair Jerome Powell said of possible cuts at the Fed’s January meeting.

Now, some economists think the Fed won’t cut interest rates at all this year.

The economy is not slowing down and some underlying measures of inflation are growing, said Torsten Slok, chief economist at Apollo Global Management, in a note to investors Friday.

“The Fed will not cut rates this year and rates are going to stay higher for longer,” he added.

Richmond Federal Reserve President Tom Barkin echoed the idea that the central bank may not cut interest rates this year.

“We’ll see,” Barkin said in an interview with CNBC on Friday morning. “I’m still hopeful inflation is going to come down, and if inflation normalizes then it makes the case for why you want to normalize rates, but to me it starts with inflation.”

Americans have been struggling with higher prices due to inflation, especially for essentials like rent, groceries and gas. Food prices rose 0.4% between December and January, the highest monthly rate in a year.

“Food prices kept going up, and that’s a real pain point,” Robert Frick, corporate economist with Navy Federal Credit Union, told CNN.

In some ways, the expectations of interest rate cuts by the Fed undermined their efforts to actually cut the rates. That’s because US growth expectations for 2024 saw a jump as investors and economists factored in easing financial conditions.

Economists at S&P 500 Global Ratings now expect US real gross domestic product to grow by 2.4% in 2024, up from their forecast of 1.5% in November. The labor market remains incredibly resilient, with unemployment at historic lows and wage inflation remaining elevated.

But an expanding economy can also accelerate the rate of inflation. Recent data shows that the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation was still stuck above the central bank’s target in January.

There are other signs that inflation isn’t easing as the Fed had predicted. Small businesses expect to raise prices soon, according to a recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Business. Prices paid by manufacturing and services companies are also rising, according to recent data.

“The bottom line is that the Fed will spend most of 2024 fighting inflation,” said Slok. That means interest rates will remain high.

Still, about half of investors are expecting an interest rate cut at the Fed’s June meeting, according to the CME FedWatch tool. The vast majority of investors expect a cut by July.

Investors will closely watch Powell for clues about rate cut expectations next week as he testifies to the House Financial Services Committee and the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.

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