Fed's Long-Sought Neutral Goal Proves Elusive and Moving Target

A shift is underway at the Federal Reserve in how to describe neutral -- the interest-rate level that neither stimulates nor restrains growth -- as it debates how much higher to hike.

For an abstract concept -- neutral can’t be directly measured -- the stakes are high: If the assessment is too low, Fed policy could be providing more stimulus to the economy than thought as it fights inflation. If it’s too high, policy is more restrictive than planned. Both can result in a damaging policy error.

The topic is moving up the policy agenda because in July, the Fed raised the top of its target range for the benchmark federal funds rate by 75 basis points to 2.5%, which Chair Jerome Powell noted met officials’ estimate of the long-run neutral rate.

That move completed the first stage of the tightening cycle begun in March, when policy makers said they wanted to get to neutral “expeditiously” to cool surging inflation.

With officials beginning stage two of the campaign -- as Powell laid out Aug. 26 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming -- the discussion has turned to how much higher they now have to go and how long to stay when they get there.