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Fed nods to improved sentiment while leaving rates unchanged

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Federal Reserve officials left interest rates unchanged while acknowledging rising confidence among consumers and businesses following Donald Trump's election victory.

"Measures of consumer and business sentiment have improved of late," the Federal Open Market Committee said in its statement Wednesday following a two-day meeting in Washington. Policy makers reiterated their expectations for moderate economic growth, "some further strengthening" in the labor market and a return to 2% inflation.

The Fed provided little direction on when it might next raise borrowing costs, as officials grapple with the uncertainty created by a new presidential administration. Policy makers in December penciled three rate hikes into their 2017 forecasts, but committee members differ over assumptions regarding the extent to which tax cuts, spending and regulatory rollbacks proposed by Trump and Republicans might boost growth and inflation.

"There is nothing in the statement that leads me to believe that their forecast has changed much," said Roberto Perli, partner at Cornerstone Macro in Washington. "I don't think there is any reason to question whether they are thinking about doing less or more than they were thinking in December."

The FOMC repeated that it anticipates interest rates will rise gradually. The statement said job gains "remained solid" and the unemployment rate "stayed near its recent low," a tweak from December's language that the rate "has declined."

"Inflation increased in recent quarters but is still below the committee's 2% longer-run objective," the Fed said. Market-based measures of inflation compensation are "still low," the central bank said, after saying in December that such measures had "moved up considerably."


Consumer spending "has been rising moderately," while business fixed investment "has remained soft," the Fed said in language similar to the previous meeting.

Surveys of consumers and businesses have shown significant increases in optimism for the economy following Trump's November win, though in some cases sentiment is divided along party lines. The University of Michigan's gauge of consumer sentiment rose last month to a 13-year high, while the National Federation of Independent Business's index of small-business optimism soared in December by the most since 1980.

The decision to leave the target federal funds rate unchanged in a range of 0.5% to 0.75% was unanimous and widely expected by investors. Fed Chair Janet Yellen, who doesn't have a press conference scheduled after this meeting, will have a chance to explain the decision further during her semiannual monetary-policy testimony to Congress in mid-February. The FOMC next meets on March 14-15.

Before the latest statement, investors saw a roughly 38% chance that the first interest-rate increase of 2017 would come at the Fed's March meeting, based on trading in federal funds futures. The odds rose to about 52% for the subsequent gathering in early May and 75% for mid-June.

The committee left unchanged its stated intention to continue reinvesting its maturing debt holdings until "normalization" of the benchmark rate is "well under way." The Fed's balance sheet stands at about $4.5 trillion.

The FOMC's only move in 2016 came when it raised rates by a quarter percentage point in the last meeting of the year. Officials had repeatedly signaled their intention to lift borrowing costs gradually, only to hold off until December amid political and economic uncertainty in the U.S. and abroad.


In recent months, confidence in the economy has grown amid continued strong hiring, with employers adding an average 200,000 jobs a month since June. The unemployment rate stood at 4.7% in December, near or below most estimates for its lowest sustainable level.

Inflation has also crept closer to the Fed's 2% target. The central bank's preferred measure of price gains, excluding food and energy, rose 1.7% in the 12 months through December.

Gross domestic product expanded at a 1.9% annualized rate in the fourth quarter, slightly below expectations amid an increase in the trade deficit, according to data released last week. Consumer spending increased at a 2.5% pace, in line with forecasts, and business investment picked up.

The annual FOMC rotation among regional Fed presidents saw three officials take voting seats for the first time since their appointments: Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker, Dallas Fed chief Robert Kaplan and Neel Kashkari in Minneapolis. Chicago's Charles Evans also became a voter for the year.

Bloomberg News