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Federal Reserve puts hold on interest rates in quiet end to busy year

Don Lee, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- After three successive interest rate cuts, the Federal Reserve hit the pause button at its last meeting of the year on Wednesday and signaled it was likely to remain on the sidelines all next year.

The decision to keep the Fed's benchmark rate at between 1.5% and 1.75% was approved unanimously by all 10 voting members, whereas one or two had dissented in recent prior meetings.

On rates, 13 of 17 policymakers expect the Fed's key interest rate to remain unchanged through all of next year. None see further cuts, while four officials are projecting a single quarter-point rate hike in 2020.

In making the widely expected decision, the central bank has kicked the can down the road -- into a potential minefield during the 2020 presidential election year.

While the U.S. economy remains defiantly buoyant today, there are signs that next year could be different. Among them: the sagging European economy with Britain's uncertain exit, President Trump's festering trade war with China and others, and an alarming surge in borrowing by major U.S. companies.

Also, the current good times, which began with recovery from the Great Recession in 2009, are long in the tooth. For almost all economists, the only questions about a slowdown is when it will come and how severe it will be.

 

And the Fed will be in a difficult position to deal with problems next year. For one thing, it has set the bar very high for raising the present, historically low level of interest rates.

For another, action next year will occur in a supercharged political atmosphere. Trump has already attacked the Fed again and again for not pumping up the economy, the health of which is critical to his reelection prospects.

Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan famously observed that the job of the central bank during good times is to take away the punch bowl just as the party really gets going.

That's never an easy or popular decision -- all the more so in a year when both political parties will be quick to jump on any decision that seems to help one side or the other.

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