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New Fed head approves first rate hike of 2018

Trump's pick to replace Janet Yellen raised rates in his first meeting as chair.
Image: FILE PHOTO:    Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell testifies before a Senate Banking Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing
Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell testifies before a Senate committee on March 1.Yuri Gripas / Reuters file

The Federal Reserve voted Wednesday to raise interest rates by one-quarter of a percentage point, in the central bank’s first policy meeting led by its new chairman, Jerome "Jay" Powell.

The move marks the first rate hike for 2018, bringing the benchmark interest rate to a range of 1.5 percent to 1.75 percent due to a "strengthened" economic outlook, said the Federal Open Market Committee in a statement. But it won’t be the last rate hike this year — the Fed has already penciled in three increases, with a fourth one also likely, depending on the pace of economic growth.

The meeting was the first major test for Powell, whom President Donald Trump tapped to replace Janet Yellen when her term as Federal Reserve Chair expired last month.

A Republican and former hedge fund executive, Powell is not new to the Fed, having served on the board of governors after being nominated by President Barack Obama in 2012.

Related: Why the Federal Reserve could look totally different (this) year

During his five years as a governor, Powell was mostly aligned with Yellen’s dovish policy-making — but the heating up of the economy after years of easy lending has brought the Federal Reserve into a new era. The chairman must balance out the burgeoning job market, an uptick in wages, and the Trump administration’s economic stimulus package, all of which could lead to an overheating of the economy — and inflation.

It’s been two years since the Fed started to tighten its monetary policy, having held rates at close to zero for seven years while it helped to shepherd the nation out of a recession.

In the time since December 2015, when Yellen approved the first interest rate increase in almost a decade, rates on consumer loans have slowly crept up — but are still far below pre-recession levels.

Higher rates are a boon for consumers who have money stashed in savings accounts, which are currently offering the highest rates in more than seven years.

However, each hike in the interest rate means that consumers with credit card debt will have to fork out a little extra each month to meet the minimum payment — and delinquency rates are already on the rise, indicating that many Americans are already overextended.

Homeowners with a fixed rate mortgage are not affected by rate hikes, but anyone with an adjustable-rate mortgage will find themselves shelling out hundreds more by the end of the year.

Homebuyers have been racing to lock in their mortgages in anticipation of the succession of rate hikes, as indicated by an uptick in mortgage applications in the last three months.