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Fed holds rates at near-zero as it watches progress on vaccinations

Brian Cheung
·3-min read

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday decided to keep interest rates at near-zero in its first meeting of 2021, extending the central bank’s easy monetary policy as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues.

“The pace of the recovery in economic activity and employment has moderated in recent months, with weakness concentrated in the sectors most adversely affected by the pandemic,” the Federal Open Market Committee added to its updated policy statement.

The language replaces December language noting that economic activity and employment remain “well below their levels at the beginning of [2020].” The economy still remains more than 9.8 million payrolls short of its pre-pandemic level.

The central bank continues to see “considerable risks” to the economic outlook, but axed language from December that specifically pinned these risks to the “medium term” time horizon.

In another tweak to its December statement, the Fed added that it will watch “progress on vaccinations” with regard to the path of the economy.

In addition to keeping rates at near-zero, the Fed also said it plans on ending the previously-scheduled one-month term repo operations in the beginning of February, citing “sustained smooth functioning of short-term U.S. dollar funding markets.”

Fed watchers expected little to no action on Wednesday as the central bank defers to Capitol Hill and the White House on delivering further stimulus.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has said the support will be needed to bridge households and businesses into the post-pandemic economy, which economists hope will arrive by the second half of this year. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (Powell’s predecessor as Fed Chair) and the rest of the newly-minted Biden administration are pitching a $1.9 trillion package.

In the meantime, the Fed continues to purchase at least $120 billion in U.S. Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities each month, a pace that the FOMC will maintain until “substantial further progress” is made on the recovery.

Fed officials have been vague about what would qualify as “substantial further progress,” but the central bank has said its goals are to reduce shortfalls of employment while modestly overshooting its 2% target on inflation.

“If progress toward our goals were to slow, the guidance would convey our intention to increase policy accommodation through a lower expected path of the federal funds rate and a higher expected path of the balance sheet,” Powell said in a press conference Wednesday.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

As the first policy-setting meeting of the calendar year, a new cast of the FOMC members have rotated into voting roles. All of the 12 reserve bank presidents participate in the meetings but only four have votes in the final decisions. For 2021 those four presidents are Atlanta’s Raphael Bostic, Chicago’s Charles Evans, Richmond’s Thomas Barkin, and San Francisco’s Mary Daly.

New York’s John Williams and the Federal Reserve Board’s six governors in Washington are permanent voters. This week’s meeting marks the first for Christopher Waller as a Fed governor.

The decision on Wednesday was unanimous among the FOMC voters.

The Fed’s next scheduled policy-setting meeting is scheduled for March 16 and 17.

Brian Cheung is a reporter covering the Fed, economics, and banking for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @bcheungz.

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