WASHINGTON - The Federal Reserve ended 2022 with a firm promise at its December policy meeting that interest rates would continue rising this year, but at a slower pace and perhaps only by another three-quarters of a percentage point.
That session's readout, due to be released at 2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT) on Wednesday, may provide further insight into just how the endgame of the current tightening cycle will play out, and how deeply Fed officials are beginning to weigh risks to economic growth against their top-of-mind concern about inflation.
The overall tone of the minutes is still likely to show inflation has top billing among policymakers. It has been slowing for several months, but as of November the Fed's preferred inflation gauge - the personal consumption expenditures price index - was still rising at a 5.5% annual rate, more than twice the U.S. central bank's 2% target.
The minutes "will lean against easing prematurely" and keep the focus on the likelihood that rates will rise further and remain high, Derek Tang, economist at LH Meyer, wrote on Tuesday.
But the details of the document, with its descriptions of different points of view and the rough sizes of groups of policymakers offering them, could show the Fed's internal deliberations entering a new phase where risks to economic growth and employment are given more standing.
The projections of Fed officials released on Dec. 14 showed near unanimity about where interest rates are heading in 2023, with 15 of 19 policymakers expecting the target rate to rise by either three-quarters of a percentage point or a full percentage point in coming months, a narrow range that would see the current cycle end this spring with that rate around 5.25% or 5.5%.
But in 2024 the projections diverge dramatically, with one official seeing the policy rate continuing at 5.625%, one seeing it slashed to 3.125%, and no more than seven officials in agreement on any particular rate in an economy that still may be flirting with or muddling through a recession.
"The FOMC seems united on getting policy above 5% but is quite split on exit strategy; how long to hold and how deeply and rapidly to ease on the other side," Tang wrote, referring to the central bank's policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee.
COGNIZANT OF RISKS
The minutes could help pin down how much sentiment there is to ease the pace of upcoming rate increases to a quarter of a percentage point as of the Jan. 31-Feb. 1 meeting. The Fed used three-quarters-of-a-percentage-point hikes for much of 2022, but trimmed that to a half-percentage-point increase in December and indicated it may slow the pace even further as it looks for a proper stopping point.
New economic data between now and then will shape that decision. Closely watched statistics on U.S. job openings will be released ahead of the minutes on Wednesday, followed on Friday by the monthly jobs report for December - both important benchmarks for Fed officials who hope the U.S. labor market will adjust to slower growth and higher interest rates with a limited loss of employment.
Consumer inflation data for December will be released next week.
Though Fed Chair Jerome Powell in December remained adamant the central bank will do what it takes to control inflation, he also said officials are cognizant of the risks of overdoing it - something Fed staff also have begun to emphasize.
In the minutes for the Nov. 1-2 meeting, Fed staff put roughly even odds on a recession in 2023, and new research late last month warned that with the world's major central banks raising rates simultaneously the combined impact may be greater than anticipated as policy in one country influences bond yields, currency values and trade patterns in another.
"It is especially challenging to estimate spillovers, and there are concerns that policymakers may underestimate them. In such a case, there is a risk of overtightening that central banks need to be, and we believe are, cognizant of," Fed economists Dario Caldara, Francesco Ferrante, and Albert Queralto wrote.
(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)