Wall Street’s major indexes edged lower after a choppy session on Wednesday after the Federal Reserve showed broad agreement on the need to raise borrowing costs further, cementing investor concerns that had helped cause a major sell-off the week before.
In defiance of sharp criticism from Trump, policymakers showed agreement on the September hike and general anticipation that further gradual increases would be consistent with the economic expansion, labor market strength, and firm inflation that most forecast.
The prospect of a more hawkish Fed exacerbated fears of uncertainties, ranging from the U.S.-China trade war, to weakness in the housing market.
Even before the minutes, trading was already choppy, and the S&P 500 struggled to build on the previous day’s rally after disappointing housing data dragged down the shares of companies such as Home Depot and a variety of homebuilders.
Of the S&P’s 11 major sectors, only four ended the day with gains. The financial sector was the largest gainer, closing 0.9 percent higher. Materials was the worst performer, chalking up an 0.8 percent decline.
Among the brighter spots was Netflix, up 5.3 percent, after reporting a substantial increase in new subscribers.
United Airlines rose 5.95 percent after a solid third-quarter earnings report and again raised its 2018 outlook. Other airline stocks followed suit in terms of share price gains.
Approximately 7.08 billion shares changed hands on the major domestic equity exchanges, a number that was substantially lower than the 7.9 billion average for the last 20 trading days.
More Rate Hikes in the Offing
The minutes of the Fed’s most recent policy meeting indicated that its members are largely united on the need to further raise interest rates. Every Fed policymaker backed the central bank’s September decision to raise the target policy rate to between 2 percent and 2.25 percent, according to minutes of the September 25-26 meeting, published Wednesday.
Participants in the Fed’s rate-setting committee also “generally anticipated that further gradual increases” in short-term borrowing costs “would most likely be consistent” with the kind of continued economic expansion, labor market strength, and firm inflation that most of them are anticipating, the minutes showed.
“This gradual approach would balance the risk of tightening monetary policy too quickly, which could lead to an abrupt slowing in the economy and inflation moving below the Committee’s objective, against the risk of moving too slowly, which could engender inflation persistently above the objective and possibly contribute to a buildup of financial imbalances,” the minutes said.
Though the minutes did not refer to any of Trump’s criticism, its message of further rate increases suggests that policymakers are not fazed by it.
The broadly united front could bolster expectations the central bank will raise rates a fourth time this year in December, but the minutes also show the committee remains split on how much further to raise rates next year.
A few participants expected rates would need to rise enough to modestly restrain economic growth, even as two others “indicated that they would not favor adopting a restrictive policy stance in the absence of clear signs of an overheating economy and rising inflation.”
Fed officials overall expect rates to rise to 3.1 percent next year and 3.4 percent in 2020, just above their 3 percent estimate for the long-run “neutral” rate at which borrowing costs are neither braking nor stimulating economic growth. Traders of futures contracts tied to the Fed’s policy rate see rates topping out at about 3 percent.
In the minutes, policymakers said estimates of the neutral rate would only be “one among many” factors going into monetary policy decisions.
The economy has been growing more quickly this year than many economists believe is possible without generating higher inflation, with the jobless rate at its lowest level in decades.
The Fed has been raising interest rates since 2015 and after the rate hike last month it stopped describing the stance of monetary policy as “accommodative,” meaning that it no longer thought the level of interest rates was stimulating the economy.
The minutes showed that “almost all” policymakers agreed it was time to remove that language.
Fed Downplays Drop in Bank Reserves
The Federal Reserve downplayed any disruption to its policy tools from a decline last month in the so-called excess reserves that flow among banks, according to minutes published Wednesday in the minutes of the Fed’s September 25-26 meeting.
Since the Fed began shrinking its balance sheet a year ago, it has shed some $250 billion in bonds accumulated to help the economy recover from recession. Over the same time, bank reserves dropped by more than twice that value, which has encouraged an upward creep of the Fed’s main policy rate within a defined range, currently set at 2.00-2.25 percent. The Fed is currently paying a 2.20 percent interest rate on excess bank reserves (IOER).
In September, this knock-on effect was exacerbated by the jump in tax receipts flowing into the Treasury’s account at the Fed.
The minutes described last month’s dip as sharp but temporary. However, “that reduction in reserves in the banking system did not seem to have any effect on the federal funds market,” according to the manager of the Fed’s portfolio, who gave a presentation during the meeting.
The federal funds policy rate has crept up to within 0.03 percent – or 3 basis points – of its ceiling within the range. “That spread stood at 3 basis points over much of the period and seemed likely to narrow to 2 basis points in the near future,” the minutes said.
In late September, the difference between IOER and the daily average fed funds rate narrowed to 2 basis points before widening out to 3 basis points.