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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Jay Powell doesn't know what he's going to do with interest rates. He probably hasn't made up his mind about what he's going to do at the next meeting, which starts on June 18, and he certainly doesn't know what he's going to do on July 31 or September 18 or October 30.

Why it matters: Markets are pricing in significant rate cuts in the second half of this year. The consensus seems to be that the cuts will start in September, probably with a 50bp decrease, but there's no great confidence in that forecast.

The uncertainty is deliberate on the part of the Fed. Depending on how you look at it, it's either a relatively new development or rather old-fashioned.

  • Context: Powell and his colleagues could easily signal an expected future path for interest rates if they wanted to. In late 2011, then-chair Ben Bernanke introduced the "dot plot" as a way to communicate even more clearly just how long he expected to keep rates at zero. In general, the Fed has become more transparent and predictable over time, issuing longer statements and being more explicit about interest-rate policy.
  • What they're saying: Powell and his colleagues regularly stress "data dependence" in monetary policy and are increasingly vocal about their distaste for the dot plot. They're honest about the fact that they don't know where the economy is headed; they don't know what unemployment rate constitutes full employment; and they don't know where interest rates must be, over the long term, to ensure price stability.

After the crisis, the role of the Fed was clear: to rescue the economy and prevent it from imploding. Today, policymakers need to decide whether they should cut rates as a form of recession insurance, and whether they should frame any rate cut as a one-off or as the first of a series.

They need to determine how much attention to pay to markets, which will throw a tantrum if the expected rate cuts don't materialize — and also how much attention to pay to politics, in a world where Fed policy has become politicized to an unprecedented degree.

The bottom line: We're not going to go back to the world of the early 1990s, when the Fed wouldn't even say what level of Fed funds it was targeting. But in an uncertain world, expect Powell to continue to embrace constructive ambiguity.

Go deeper

GOP implosion: Trump threats, payback

Spotted last week on a work van in Evansville, Ind. Photo: Sam Owens/The Evansville Courier & Press via Reuters

The GOP is getting torn apart by a spreading revolt against party leaders for failing to stand up for former President Trump and punish his critics.

Why it matters: Republican leaders suffered a nightmarish two months in Washington. Outside the nation’s capital, it's even worse.

Erica Pandey, author of @Work
3 hours ago - Economy & Business

The limits of Biden's plan to cancel student debt

Data: New York Fed Consumer Credit Panel/Equifax; Chart: Axios Visuals

There’s a growing consensus among Americans who want President Biden to cancel student debt — but addressing the ballooning debt burden is much more complicated than it seems.

Why it matters: Student debt is stopping millions of Americans from buying homes, buying cars and starting families. And the crisis is rapidly getting worse.

Why made-for-TV moments matter during the pandemic

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Erin Schaff-Pool, Biden Inaugural Committee via Getty Images

In a world where most Americans are isolated and forced to laugh, cry and mourn without friends or family by their side, viral moments can offer critical opportunities to unite the country or divide it.

Driving the news: President Biden's inauguration was produced to create several made-for-social viral moments, a tactic similar to what the Democratic National Committee and the Biden campaign pulled off during the Democratic National Convention.