Q: I'm new to investing, and I notice there's a ton of Federal Reserve coverage in the days leading up to meetings, but I feel like they're speaking another language. What are the basics I need to know?
When you hear about a Federal Reserve meeting, the group that is really getting together is known as the Federal Open Market Committee, or FOMC. This is the policy-making arm of the Federal Reserve.
The FOMC meets eight times per year, but not all of the meetings carry the same significance. There are four meetings per year (in March, June, September, and December) where the FOMC releases its latest economic projections.
The FOMC members' projections on unemployment, inflation, and GDP growth are released, and the dot plot is also issued after these meetings, showing where voting members see rates heading in the future. These projections are closely watched, as they give clues about the potential future direction of monetary policy.
The FOMC also votes on whether to raise, lower, or hold the federal funds benchmark interest rate steady at its meetings. While the committee can technically change rates at any of their meetings, it typically only happens at these four "main" meetings.
All eight meetings are held over two-day periods, and the FOMC releases a statement at 2 p.m. ET on the second day. This communication details the Fed's interest rate decision, and also gives a brief overview of the rationale behind the determination. To be clear, the statement is very important -- there are few documents anywhere that are as dissected as the FOMC statement.
Finally, the key point to know is that lower interest rates are generally a positive factor for markets, while higher rates are typically a negative catalyst. The most important reason investors watch the Fed meetings so closely is for expectations of future interest rate moves. For instance, at its March meeting, the FOMC lowered its 2019 forecast from two interest rate hikes to zero, and the market rallied even though no rate action was taken at that meeting.