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5 Key Takeaways From the September Federal Reserve Meeting

By Matthew Frankel, CFP® - Sep 26, 2018 at 3:07PM

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The rate hike isn’t the most important thing to pay attention to.

The Federal Reserve's Federal Open Market Committee, or FOMC, announced the third rate hike of 2018, a move that was widely expected. However, there is more to the Fed meeting than the rate hike. Here are five takeaways from the results of the September Fed meeting that paint a clearer picture of where interest rates could be heading in the future.

Interest rates are rising as expected

The headline news is that the FOMC raised the target federal funds rate range by 25 basis points (one-fourth of a percentage point) to 2% to 2.25%.

Calculator that says "interest" on its display, surrounded by money.

Image Source: Getty Images.

However, it's important to realize that this increase was already widely expected. Futures markets had been pricing in a virtually 100% probability that rates would rise today, so this isn't a surprise by any definition of the word.

In the current rate-hike cycle, which began in late 2015, the Federal Reserve has now raised rates eight times, each time choosing to hike the target range by a quarter point.

Key language disappeared from the FOMC statement

For the most part, the statement released by the FOMC at the conclusion of its meeting looked like the one it had issued after its August meeting. The notable exceptions were the rate hike itself and the deletion of a key sentence:

"The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting strong labor market conditions and a sustained return to 2 percent inflation."

In August, experts had started to speculate that the term "accommodative" would need to be removed from the statement soon, and it appears they were right. And while this could be seen as less than ideal in terms of the stock market's reaction, it doesn't look like this was much of a surprise.

Expect another rate hike in December

While the September rate hike was a near certainty going into the meeting, the prospect of a December rate hike was a bigger question. Prior to the meeting, the markets were pricing in about an 80% chance of another hike in December -- likely but not a certainty by any means.

Well, it appears that the Fed is planning to hike rates for a fourth time this year in December. The vast majority of FOMC members see rates in the 2.25% to 2.5% target range at the end of the year, which is one notch higher than they currently are.

The Fed still expects rates to continue higher for a couple more years

Additionally, the Fed's expectations for interest rates over the next couple of years remain the same. With all of the trade uncertainty, many people were watching to see if the Fed could become more cautious, but it doesn't appear to be the case.

Based on the "dotplot" of where each FOMC participant sees interest rates going, the consensus calls for 3.1% by the end of 2019 (three rate hikes next year) and 3.4% by the end of 2020 (one more hike).

Members also gave their 2021 projections for the first time. No rate hikes are expected in 2021, according to the consensus, but there is a wide range. FOMC member estimates range from a low federal funds rate range of 2% to 2.25% (where it is right now) to a maximum of 4% to 4.25%. In short, there's a lot of uncertainty as to where rates are heading beyond the next couple of years.

The economy is stronger than expected

The FOMC bases its decision on inflation and the strength of the economy, and based on its new projections, it's easy to see why it isn't backing off of its rate-hiking plans just yet.

For 2018, the FOMC estimates 3.1% GDP growth, up from 2.8% at its June meeting. Plus, the 2019 estimate has increased from 2.4% to 2.5%.

The bottom line on the Fed meeting

The best way I can sum up the September FOMC meeting is "not surprising." The rate hike was already assumed, and there weren't any major changes in the committee's economic or interest rate projections. And we received confirmation that the Fed expects to raise rates again in December, which was also seen as a pretty safe bet. In all, this wasn't the most eventful FOMC meeting, but that's likely why the market isn't reacting negatively to any of the information that came out of it.

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