Fed hikes interest rates for fourth time this year, despite Trump's objections

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell's challenge has been to make it clear the decision was data driven and not influenced by politics.
Image: Fed Chair Powell announces a quarter percent interest rate hike
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell announces the Fed's decision to raise interest rates following a Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington on Dec. 19, 2018.Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

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By Lucy Bayly

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday hiked the nation's benchmark borrowing rate by 0.25 percent for the fourth time this year, despite months of objections from President Donald Trump, who fears higher interest rates will take the steam out of the nation's booming economy.

The move, announced at the conclusion of the central bank's December monetary policy meeting, is the fourth rate hike this year and the fourth for Trump-appointed Fed Chairman Jerome "Jay" Powell.

As head of the Federal Reserve, Powell has found himself uncharacteristically singled out for criticism over the central bank's handling of interest rates, with Trump saying he "maybe" regretted nominating Powell to the position.

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"I have a hot economy going," Trump said in an interview in October, lamenting that "every time we do something great, he raises the interest rates."

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that the Fed should "feel the market" and "take the victory." Yet Powell, for his part, has pointedly noted the Fed's precarious position, saying the central bank is cautious about “moving too fast and needlessly shortening the expansion" or "moving too slowly and risking a destabilizing overheating."

Powell's challenge at this juncture has been to make it clear that the Fed's decision was data driven and not due to any deference to the political establishment — which would have risked the central bank's credibility as an independent agency.

Among the changing market conditions the Fed has had to parse are forecasts of a global slowdown, continued trade and geopolitical tensions, a 30 percent decline in the price of oil, and a slight lowering in core inflation.

But with a robust economy at home, rising wage gains, and the lowest unemployment in almost 50 years, the Fed ultimately chose to take its hands off the wheel after almost a decade of "accommodative" monetary policy, when it held interest rates artificially lower in order to help America rebuild after the Great Recession.

Wednesday's decision was closely watched by markets and economists, with 70 percent anticipating a rate hike. Wall Street has been flailing this month, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the broader S&P 500 each down about 7 percent in just the past two weeks, in part due to investor fears that the Fed would stumble and raise rates too high for the economy to tolerate.

"The economy continues to punch well above its weight," said Steve Rick, chief economist at CUNA Mutual Group. "Although trade tensions and tariffs continue to present uncertainty, the economy has been running red-hot for a long time, and another interest rate hike is overdue to keep it from boiling over. Overall, with the economy in such good shape, it’s time for consumers to start saving again."