The Federal Reserve followed through Wednesday with the third increase this year in its target interest rate, announcing that it will raise rates a quarter-point and aim for short-term interest rates of up to 1.5 percent.
Wednesday’s announcement, which investors expected, caps the central bank’s efforts this year to move its monetary policy away from the crisis-era emergency stimulus efforts of zero rates and an expanded balance sheet and to prepare for the country to reach full employment.
Chairwoman Janet Yellen and other top officials are betting that the economy will improve in the months ahead, requiring tighter money to keep inflation stable, even though actual inflation trended down during the year.
The Fed statement said "job gains have been solid," and officials raised their growth projections for 2018, gauging that unemployment will fall to 3.9 percent by the end of next year.
However, two members of the monetary policy committee dissented from the decision, stating that they would have preferred to keep rates steady.
With Wednesday’s monetary policy decision and scheduled press conference, Yellen’s substantive work at the Fed will be complete, as she is expected to be replaced by President Trump’s nominee Jerome Powell in February.
Appointed by former President Barack Obama to helm the central bank in 2014, Yellen inherited from Ben Bernanke responsibility for scaling back the Fed’s unprecedented stimulus measures and finishing the implementation of the new post-crisis banking rules.
During her tenure, the unemployment rate fell from 6.7 percent to 4.1 percent and the stock market rose by more than 50 percent.
Yellen’s track record on the Fed’s mandate to maintain stable prices is more mixed. The central bank has set a target of 2 percent inflation over the long term. During her tenure, however, inflation has only risen above 2 percent for two months: January and February of this year. At all other times, it ran below target.
The Fed favors inflation at the target partly to ensure that the economy is growing as fast as it could be. In that framework, consistently falling short of 2 percent inflation is a sign that the country could have more economic growth and more jobs if the Fed pursued easier money.
The question of whether the Fed should be raising rates in the face of below-target inflation was set to be a big one at Wednesday’s meeting.
Yellen has maintained that the low inflation is likely to prove temporary as the labor market tightens. She has attributed slow price gains to one-time factors, such as price wars between cell phone services. Yellen also admitted this fall, though, that the slowdown in inflation is a “mystery.”
Some other Fed officials, such as Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago President Charles Evans, have expressed more skepticism that inflation is set to move up even as the Fed pursues rate increases. Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari has called throughout 2017 to hold off on raising rates to prevent inflation from drifting lower. Evans and Kashkari were the two members of the rate-setting committee who dissented from the decision to raise rates on Wednesday.
As they met Wednesday morning, Fed officials did get one reassuring data point about prices. Inflation picked up from 2 percent to 2.2 percent in November, as measured by the Consumer Price Index. The Fed, though, prefers a gauge that has shown lower inflation in recent months.