Feb 20, 2024 - Economy

Hot data is churning the economic waters for the Fed

Illustration of Benjamin Franklin with his head almost under water

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

In central banking, if you're not a step ahead, you're two steps behind. Economic policy choices shape results for several months into the future, not for today.

Why it matters: This marks a delicate moment for the Federal Reserve, as the data sends mixed messages about whether continued expansion is in peril and whether inflation will continue its downward glide.

  • Comments from a series of Fed officials last week suggest their view of the economy's likely path — a soft landing with continued disinflation, accompanied by rate cuts — remains intact.
  • But the murky waters have made the policy path ahead look a little less clear than it seemed a few weeks ago.

State of play: Both January's Consumer Price Index and Producer Price Index came in hot last week, suggesting a reversal of disinflation to start 2024. It came after a blockbuster January jobs report. On the flip side, retail sales came in weaker than expected.

  • As a result of all that, market odds on near-term interest rate cuts have fallen.
  • There is now a 62% chance the Fed will leave rates at their current sky-high levels following its May meeting, according to the CME FedWatch tracker based on futures prices. Those odds were just 15% a month ago.
  • There is even new chatter about the possibility the next policy move will be a hike instead of a cut, though markets still assign very low odds to that.

Yes, but: As is often the case, Fed officials are less excitable than Wall Street analysts and investors, and their recent public comments suggest the basic outlook for the year remains intact.

  • On Friday at the National Association for Business Economics, San Francisco Fed president Mary Daly said that the three 2024 rate cuts implied by projections last updated in December remain a "reasonable baseline expectation."

What they're saying: The latest data "has not shaken my confidence we're going in the right direction," Daly said.

  • "The data around turning points in the economy — whether that's a turning point to expand rapidly or a turning point to slow to a more sustainable pace — they're always bumpy," she added.
  • Similarly, Atlanta Fed president Raphael Bostic told CNBC on Friday that "we've seen tremendous progress [on inflation], and I'm hopeful that that continues. If that continues, I'll be willing to pull [rate cuts] forward even further."

What's next: Wednesday, the Fed will release minutes of its last policy meeting. Thursday, both vice chair Philip Jefferson and governor Chris Waller speak on the economic outlook. We'll be watching for any signs the recent data has caused their thinking to adjust.

Go deeper