Federal Reserve officials voted to hold the central bank's interest rate target steady Wednesday, leaving major questions about plans to tighten monetary policy for June.
At the same time, the officials expressed confidence in the U.S. economy, saying in a statement released Wednesday afternoon that the weakness in the first quarter was likely to prove "transitory."
For now, the Fed's monetary policy committee will continue aiming for short-term interest rates between 0.75 percent to 1 percent, a decision that was unanimous.
Investors had expected the Fed to keep rates steady, a decision with major implications for overall spending because the short-term rates affect terms on business loans, credit cards, mortgages and all other credit products.
But they have been seeking a better sense of the Fed's intentions for the rest of the year. There, it appears, that the Fed has not changed its view of the trajectory of the economy, despite the poor 0.7 percent growth rate for the gross domestic product in the first quarter. Wednesday's statement also minimized the impact of the major slowdon in consumer spending, saying that "the fundamentals underpinning the continued growth of consumption remained solid."
Immediately after Wednesday's statement, bond market prices shifted to reflect greater odds of a rate hike at the Fed's June meeting.
"While the Fed acknowledged the slowdown in the economy and consumer spending during the first quarter, they also view it as temporary," said Bankrate.com chief financial economist Greg McBride. "In other words, they expect to continue raising interest rates – and the next hike may come as soon as June."
In question is not just how far the Fed will raise rates, but also whether and when it will begin shrinking its $4.5 trillion balance sheet. Either of those moves would tend to reduce spending by families and businesses, lowering the risk of inflation rising above where the Fed wants it.
In recent months, Chairwoman Janet Yellen and other Fed officials have signaled that they are planning several interest rate increases this year, in response to continued strong job gains.
Yet in recent months inflation pressures appear to have abated, contrary to the Fed's expectation for prices to rise as unemployment ebbs.
The Fed's target is 2 percent, but the latest data, released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis on Monday, showed core inflation slowing from 1.8 percent to 1.6 percent.
That creates a bit of dilemma, given that the unemployment rate, at 4.5 percent in March, is already lower than where Fed officials think it can go in the long run without driving up inflation.
"In our view, the U.S. economy has now reached full employment and is likely to overshoot meaningfully, a path that has often proven risky," Goldman Sachs David Mericle wrote in a note Monday.
Fed officials will have to weigh the possibility that the labor market is getting "overheated" against their concern that the inflation target remains out of reach. Falling short on inflation would be a worry because of the risk that it signals a broader slowdown in the economy and that they are failing to set expectations where they want them.
Wednesday's statement merely noted that inflation was below target, without addressing the level of concern about the shortfall.