- WASHINGTON, Sept 21 (Reuters)
-- The U.S. Federal Reserve on Tuesday raised interest rates for the third
time this year by a quarter of a percentage point and said the economy
was regaining momentum, signaling at least one more to come.
- The widely expected and unanimous decision by the policy-setting
Federal Open Market Committee moves the benchmark federal funds rate --
which influences credit costs throughout the economy -- to 1.75 percent
from 1.5 percent.
- The central bank lifted short-term rates by matching
amounts at its policy sessions in June and on Aug. 10, ending a long period
of super-low borrowing costs.
- Many economists expect a fourth rise at the next meeting
on Nov. 10, about a week after the U.S. presidential elections.
- "After moderating earlier this year partly in response
to the substantial rise in energy prices, output growth appears to have
regained some traction, and labor market conditions have improved modestly,"
the Fed said in a statement outlining its decision, which also increased
the largely symbolic discount rate to 2.75 percent.
- The Fed also said inflation pressures and expectations
had eased despite a rise in energy costs.
- It said risks to the U.S. economy remained balanced between
weaker growth and higher prices and repeated a pledge to undertake a "measured"
course of rate increases.
- KEEPING OPTIONS OPEN
- Analysts said the Fed, with its carefully couched language,
seemed to be keeping its options open on whether to steadily ratchet rates
up or take a pause if economic data weaken.
- "This is a story that's being written as the economy
goes along as far as how fast the Fed will raise rates," said economist
William Hornbarger of A.G. Edwards and Sons Inc. in St. Louis, Mo. "They've
indicated they will keep raising rates; the question is how quickly."
- A Reuters poll of 22 top Wall Street bond dealers found
all agreed the Fed would boost interest rates a further quarter percentage
point in November.
- At that point, 15 dealers think the Fed will hold at
2 percent through the end of the year while seven predicted another quarter
percentage point hike at the eighth and final policy-setting session on
- The picture was muddier for next year, with bond dealers
estimating the fed funds rate could be anywhere between 2 percent and 4.5
percent when 2005 ends -- reflecting widely divergent opinions about growth
prospects and inflation risks.
- One concern this year is that a soft pace of job creation
and higher energy prices have put strain on consumers, who were the main
support for a teetering U.S. economy in the slow recovery from the 2001
recession. Retail sales fell in August.
- Some economists believe the softness may persist and
that the rate-rise cycle is near an end. However, the Fed insists the economy
is getting its footing after a "soft patch" that began mid-year.
- Financial markets were unsure how to interpret the Fed's
statement. Some saw it as a signal that several more rate rises lay ahead
but others took it as reassurance that the path to higher rates would be
- Short-term Treasury debt prices weakened as participants
saw a higher likelihood of a hike in November, but long-term bond prices
gained on Fed assurances that inflation was subdued -- language unlikely
to presage aggressive rate increases.
- Stock prices strengthened, buoyed by the reference to
output growth regaining traction -- words Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan offered
to Congress earlier this month.
- The Dow Jones industrial average closed up 40.04 points,
or 0.39 percent, at 10,244.93. The technology-laced Nasdaq Composite Index
finished up 13.11 points, or 0.69 percent, at 1,921.18.
- This was the final policy meeting before the Nov. 2 presidential
- Democratic and Republican campaigns have presented starkly
contrasting views of the economy's health.
- President George W. Bush says his administration's tax
cuts lifted the United States out of economic doldrums that began before
he came to power in 2001.
- Democratic presidential contender Sen. John Kerry says
Bush's policies have failed to spur hiring and have fueled record budget
deficits that imperil the future.
- The Bush administration's top economic official, Treasury
Secretary John Snow, was unfazed by the Fed's decision, telling reporters:
"Increases in discount rates are consistent with a recovering economy."
- The Fed has been trying to bring official interest rates
to a level seen as normal or "neutral" -- one that neither hinders
expansion nor spurs it enough to trigger inflation pressure. Exactly where
that lies remains open to debate.
- Private-sector economists argue a neutral rate could
be around 3 percent but Greenspan has said only that the Fed won't know
where the right level lies "until we get there."
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