By Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir
WASHINGTON/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Federal Reserve officials are likely to hit a key milestone this week with an interest rate hike that effectively ends pandemic-era support for the U.S. economy and begins to test whether growth can continue without the central bank's active help.
The Fed is expected to raise its benchmark overnight interest rate by three-quarters of a percentage point to a target range of 2.25% to 2.50% at the end of a two-day policy meeting on Wednesday. That would match the high hit before the COVID-19 pandemic and lift rates to a level officials see as roughly "neutral," or no longer supporting the economy, over the long run.
With that benchmark in view, the debate shifts to questions that will determine whether the economy can avoid a recession in coming months: How low will inflation need to fall before Fed officials conclude it is under control? How high will rates need to rise for that to happen? And how much of a cost will be paid in terms of slower economic growth and rising joblessness?
Fed officials coalesced behind aggressive rate hikes as they watched inflation accelerate this year. But there is little precedent for the moment they now face, and little clarity on how monetary policy will be set once inflation begins to ease and as they begin to interpret the outlook differently.
"As long as inflation is as high as it is, and no sign of abating, you are going to have a united front," said Luke Tilley, chief economist at Wilmington Trust. The Fed's preferred inflation measure is running at a four-decade high of more than 6%, roughly triple the formal 2% target.
But even with officials promising a full-tilt battle against destabilizing price increases, it may take as little as two months of slowing inflation for "the hawks and the doves ... to make themselves known pretty quickly," with renewed debate over how much risk it is reasonable to take with the economy to drive inflation down another notch, he said.
Hawks and doves is central-bank shorthand for the tension between policymakers more concerned about the risks of inflation - hawks - and those who prioritize the Fed's other goal of maximum employment - doves.
That has become a hard distinction to draw when all policymakers say they are prepared to raise rates as high as necessary https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-ECONOMY/FED/lgpdwawwzvo/index.html to cool inflation.
'NO REAL DISPUTE'
So far, there's been no real decision to make except how large a rate increase to approve at each policy meeting.
Inflation has actually accelerated since the Fed began raising rates in March, prompting officials to shift from the quarter-percentage-point increase that month to a half-percentage-point hike in May and to a 75-basis-point increase in June. That's a trajectory not seen since former Fed Chair Paul Volcker's battle with inflation in the 1980s.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Fed Chair Jerome Powell may start to shape expectations for the next policy meeting in September, but be reluctant to speak much beyond that.
The U.S. unemployment rate, meanwhile, has remained at a low 3.6% since March, with more than 350,000 jobs being added monthly and leaving little sense yet that policymakers have reached a point where their efforts to control inflation require a direct tradeoff in terms of jobs.
Rate increases are intended to ease inflation by slowing the economy overall. That can also lead to rising unemployment and even an outright recession.
At the Fed's June 14-15 meeting, even the least aggressive policymaker projected a federal funds rate above 3% by the end of this year, which would be the highest since the 2007-2009 financial crisis ushered in an era of low interest rates and benign inflation.
The current pace of job creation is "way too high. That's why there is no real dispute within the (Federal Open Market) Committee," said Ethan Harris, the head of global research at Bank of America, referring to the Fed's policy-setting body.
Similarly, the current unemployment rate isn't considered consistent with 2% inflation and "they need to see some evidence it is picking up" to gain confidence that inflation will move persistently lower, Harris added.
A key unknown is how policymakers will react once inflation and unemployment start to change meaningfully.
The 75-basis-point rate hike expected this week marks one of the fastest-ever turns from a low point in rates back to neutral, a level policymakers are eager to reach sooner than later in order to stop stimulating the economy.
Each move from here goes deeper into what's considered "restrictive" territory. While financial markets have priced in higher rates - exemplified by rises in the cost of a 30-year fixed mortgage - they also see an increased risk of recession and, as a result, potential Fed rate cuts as soon as next year.
U.S. central bank officials will likely stick with their data-dependent mantra. But the same data can mean different things to different policymakers and are usually evaluated with an eye towards how risks to their goals are shifting.
Some may insist on a strict return to 2% inflation regardless of the economic losses needed to get there; others have suggested that data moving convincingly in the right direction might be enough.
There are signs consumers already are pulling back - or being forced to - by prices that are rising faster than wages. Retail sales growth on an inflation-adjusted basis has slowed to a crawl. And, in a sign of household stress, AT&T said its overall cash flow has suffered because so many of its customers are late with monthly bill payments.
The federal funds rate was last in the 2.25%-2.50% range in late 2018 after a string of rate hikes. Signs of economic weakness, however, caused the Fed to halt any further tightening and within roughly eight months it was cutting rates.
Inflation was tame at that point, so the focus was on maintaining a labor market that had a similar unemployment rate to now and was producing solid gains for lower-income and less-skilled workers.
As Fed policymakers probe how the economy responds to even higher borrowing costs, they may well be faced with a tougher set of choices this time.
(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)