The Fed Hesitates and the Markets Wait

Although a strong economy has changed expectations about the timing and magnitude of interest rate cuts, we still see room for the Federal Reserve to cut by three-quarters of a point this year.

In the past few months, expectations about the timing and magnitude of interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve have changed dramatically. Earlier in the year, the federal funds futures market had priced in as many as six 25-basis-point1 cuts to the federal funds target rate, suggesting that the upper bound of the rate would fall from 5.5% to 4.25% this year.

Now that number is down to three, implying a year-end federal funds rate of 4.75%. Some are even suggesting that the Fed won't lower interest rates this year at all, due to the strength of the economy and the risk that inflation will remain too high.

One reason for the volatility in expectations is that the Fed has pushed back on the prospect for a rapid pace of rate cuts. Rather, it has indicated that it is "data dependent," watching every data point to assess the next policy move. That leaves investors to react to every economic indicator and extrapolate the results into the future. However, taking a long-term perspective, we still see room for the Fed to cut rates three times for a cumulative total of 75 basis points in 2024.

Inflation is trending lower

Various indicators point to lower inflation over the long run. The indicator that the Fed uses for setting policy, the deflator for personal consumption expenditures excluding food and energy (core PCE) is nearing the Fed's 2% target level and trending lower. The recent increase was driven to a large extent by rising fees for financial services, an outgrowth of the bull market in stocks leading to increased trading fees. While the bull market can continue, we doubt large monthly increases in fees are likely to be sustained going forward.

Despite a stronger-than-expected rise in core PCE in February, the overall trend remains lower