The Federal Reserve signaled it will start raising interest rates “soon” and shrink its bond holdings after liftoff has begun, moving toward ending ultra-easy pandemic support to fight the hottest inflation in a generation.

“With inflation well above 2% and a strong labor market, the committee expects it will soon be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate,” the Federal Open Market Committee said in a statement Wednesday following a two-day policy meeting. In a separate statement, the Fed said it expects the process of balance-sheet reduction “will commence after the process of increasing the target range for the federal funds rate has begun.”

The pivot, against a backdrop of turmoil in stocks, comes amid consumer inflation readings that have repeatedly surprised and hit 7%—the most since the 1980s—and a tight labor market that’s pushed unemployment down faster than anticipated to almost its prepandemic level.

Hottest In Decades
The yield on 10-year Treasury note edged higher after the announcement while the curve steepened. The S&P 500 index added to the day’s advances and the dollar maintained gains. In futures markets, traders held fairly steady the degree of hiking they foresee this year, with about 25 basis points priced-in at the March FOMC and a total of 100 basis points of tightening by the end of 2022.

“That was a very artful statement. We are getting a relief rally,” Guggenheim Partners’ global chief investment officer Scott Minerd told Bloomberg Television. “They made it clear they are not going to shrink the balance sheet until after they start raising rates.”

A rate hike would be the central bank’s first since 2018, with many analysts forecasting a quarter-point increase in March to be followed by three more this year and additional moves beyond. Critics say the Fed has been too slow to act and is now behind the curve in tackling inflation, though key market gauges don’t back that view. Even some Fed officials have publicly discussed if they should raise rates more this year than forecast.

The Fed stopped short of specifying March as the starting point of rate liftoff. It also reiterated that “risks to the economic outlook remain, including from new variants of the virus.”

The FOMC removed the previous opening line of its statement, which said the central bank was “committed to using its full range of tools to support the U.S. economy in this challenging time.”

The vote was unanimous. Chair Jerome Powell will address a virtual press conference at 2:30 p.m. Washington time. Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker voted as the alternate for the Boston Fed, which is currently without a president, while three vacancies at the Board of Governors reduced the number of voters at this meeting to nine.

Officials held the target range for their benchmark policy rate unchanged at zero to 0.25% as expected.

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