The levers of Powell: The Federal Reserve pauses interest rate hikes, a caution that should continue

After 10 consecutive interest rate hikes meant to squeeze down inflation, the Federal Reserve on Wednesday held steady at a benchmark rate of between 5 and 5.25%, indicating that the aggressive intervention has yielded results and the central bank is easing off. Let’s hope this pattern holds, because the consequences of too much harsh medicine could be more dire than the ailment.

There are plenty of people who point out, correctly, that the current interest rates are still far below historical benchmarks and are coming after years of rates set effectively at the “free money” mark. Yet the question isn’t only what the rates are, but how dramatically they shift in how short of a time period, and on that front the Fed’s latest actions are eye-popping, if not unprecedented.

Of course, these actions were taken to tamp down on runaway inflation. The proof is in the pudding now that inflation is cooling off and the indicators are looking good, though perhaps much of that has to do with supply chain issues outside of the Fed’s control. Nonetheless, we actually do seem headed for that fabled soft landing, with the hikes having so far not led to signs of an incoming recession.

There have been collateral consequences — including the largest bank collapses since 2008 — and difficulties with people trying to finance home purchases, and any rise in unemployment rates brings about pain, but so far those consequences haven’t risked completely spiraling out of control. So why push our luck? The majority of Fed policymakers indicated that they expected to see some two additional quarter-point increases this year, though that’s not a certainty.

The ever-cautious Chair Jay Powell indicated that the Fed is dissatisfied with inflation’s response to his bank’s efforts so far, and would do “whatever it takes,” but most observers expect the downward trend to continue and this to essentially be a bluff. If things are going in the right direction, let’s hope it is, because once the recession snowball starts, it’s very, very hard to stop.