Fed seems content with low rates but confronts challenges

FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2019, file photo Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell arrives to speak at a news conference after the Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington. For the first time in years, Federal Reserve officials will hold their latest policy meeting this week feeling broadly satisfied with where interest rates are and with seemingly no inclination to change them anytime soon. Powell has expressed a sense of gratification with Fed policy. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2019, file photo Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell arrives to speak at a news conference after the Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington. For the first time in years, Federal Reserve officials will hold their latest policy meeting this week feeling broadly satisfied with where interest rates are and with seemingly no inclination to change them anytime soon. Powell has expressed a sense of gratification with Fed policy. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – For the first time in years, Federal Reserve officials will hold their latest policy meeting this week feeling broadly satisfied with where interest rates are and with seemingly no inclination to change them anytime soon.

Chairman Jerome Powell has expressed a sense of gratification with Fed policy, thanks to a steady if unspectacular economy driven by a robust job market. The unemployment rate is at a 50-year low. Economic growth remains solid if modest at a roughly 2% annual rate. With inflation low, the Fed could potentially stand pat for months.

Yet even with the Fed seemingly comfortable with the range of its benchmark rate — a historically low 1.5% to 1.75% — questions about its policy-making remain. They include what the next steps might be for the Fed's ongoing purchases of short-term Treasury bills, which are intended to keep overnight lending markets free-flowing and to hold down short-term borrowing rates. Officials will also likely spend time at their Tuesday-Wednesday meeting discussing their ongoing review of how the Fed should adapt its policies for a persistently low-inflation, low-interest rate environment.

There is also continued uncertainty about the global economy, concern about high levels of corporate debt and potential risks to the financial markets from consistently ultra-low rates

Last year, the Fed cut its benchmark interest rate three times after having raised it four times in 2018. Powell and other Fed officials credit those rate cuts with revitalizing the housing market, which had stumbled early last year, and offsetting some of the drag from President Donald Trump's trade war with China.

Among other benefits, the rate cuts have helped drive down mortgage rates and led home buyers to bid up prices on a dwindling number of available properties. Home sales jumped in December and were nearly 11% higher than a year earlier. Since they last met in December, Fed officials have presented a nearly unified front in support of keeping rates unchanged, possibly for the rest of this year. That contrasts with last year, when both “hawks,” who tend to favor higher rates, and “doves,” who typically lean toward lower rates, occasionally dissented from the Fed's rate decisions.

“My expectation is we could go through the entire year without rate changes,” Charles Evans, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said this month.

Among the policymakers, Evans is regarded as mainly dovish. But his comments were echoed by more hawkish policymakers, such as Patrick Harker, president of the Philadelphia Fed.