The Federal Reserve announced on Wednesday that it will keep its benchmark interest rate at current levels in response to lackluster job creation in recent months and other discouraging economic data.
The decision will shield American consumers from higher borrowing costs, but it also reflects the fragility and unpredictability of the current economic recovery, some seven years after the Great Recession officially ended.
The central bank's Federal Open Market Committee is keeping the influential target federal funds rate -- the Fed-set interest rate banks charge one another for overnight lending -- at a range of 0.25 to 0.5 percent. Since the rate is a benchmark for lending throughout the economy, leaving it unchanged will likely prevent higher interest rates on mortgages, car loans and other household debts.
The Fed has a dual mandate to craft monetary policy that both maximizes employment and keeps inflation in check. The FOMC lowers the federal funds rate to accelerate job growth by reducing borrowing costs. It raises the rate to limit price inflation by slowing the pace of job growth.
The FOMC’s decision not to do the latter in June was widely expected. Fed officials signaled earlier this month that disappointing job creation had undermined the case for a rate hike. The economy created just 38,000 jobs in May, and new data show that the preceding two months produced fewer jobs than previously believed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The central bank is also responding to tepid inflation. The price of consumer goods, excluding food and energy, rose 1.6 percent in the 12 months ending in April, according to the price index favored by the Fed -- well below the Fed’s 2-percent target. And a University of Michigan survey revealed on Friday that U.S. households' expectations of long-term inflation are lower than they have been at any point since the survey began collecting data in 1979.
In a press conference following the announcement, Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen acknowledged the role that those developments played in the central bank’s decision, noting that “recent economic indicators have been mixed.”
Yellen also said that the prospect of a “Brexit,” or British exit from the European Union, was “one of the factors” that led the central bank to hold off on an interest rate hike. The United Kingdom will vote on the country’s membership in the EU on June 23.
If the U.K. chooses to leave the EU, which functions as a single market, it could ultimately have adverse effects on the U.S. economic outlook, Yellen suggested. A higher percentage of British voters supported Brexit than opposed it in a poll released on Monday.
The Fed last raised the federal funds rate by one-quarter of a percentage point in December, the first increase since the financial crisis. The rate had been at or near zero -- 0 to 0.25 percent -- since December 2008.
With the December interest rate increase, the Fed seemed to express confidence that the economic recovery had entered a new phase, indicating it was time to pivot to the work of preventing inflation. Yellen predicted that the move would be the first in a series of small interest rate hikes that would gradually raise rates to levels that are more historically normal.
Since then, however, disappointing economic data have repeatedly delayed the pace of those increases. Slower global demand reduced the availability of credit, and wage growth remained sluggish, prompting the Fed not to raise the federal funds rate in March.
Fed officials suggested in May that economic conditions would finally permit them to raise the rate again in June. But the May job creation data, released on June 3, rapidly dashed those plans.
The central bank's next opportunity to announce a rate hike will be July 27, after a meeting of the FOMC.
Wednesday’s announcement will come as welcome news to many progressive economists and activists who have long argued that the job market has much more room to grow before inflation becomes a serious problem.
While the official unemployment rate is 4.7 percent, much of its recent decline is due to people dropping out of the workforce altogether. The labor force participation rate, which measures the percentage of people actively seeking work in addition to those who are working, is significantly lower than it was in 2000.
In fact, when you exclude workers 55 or older who may have retired voluntarily, labor force participation is lower now than it was at its worst point during the past two business cycles, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.
A job market where people continue to give up on finding work is part of the reason wage growth has failed to meet expectations, since employers still have little reason to compete for workers, progressive economists argue. Average hourly pay rose 2.5 percent in the 12-month period ending in May, not enough for a significant boost in most Americans’ paychecks.
The Fed Up campaign, a coalition of progressive groups that advocates for Fed policy that is favorable to workers and communities of color, cites figures like those when pleading with the Fed to hold off on raising rates. Fed Up has called on the Fed not to raise the benchmark interest rate until "the economic recovery reaches all communities," said Jordan Haedtler, Fed Up campaign manager.
Progressives were overjoyed when presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton expressed her sympathy with these concerns last month. The campaign said in a statement that as president, Clinton would appoint Fed officials who take seriously the central bank’s mandate to maximize employment, in addition to its duty to tamp down inflation.
Clinton stands to benefit politically from Wednesday’s announcement, since voters typically judge the candidate of the incumbent party for the economy's performance. A rate increase would have squeezed economic demand, risking even slower job growth in the months ahead of the general election.
Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has expressed a wide variety of views about the Fed. He most recently suggested that he supports low interest rates, but that he plans to replace Yellen as Fed chair.
Yellen said Wednesday that the central bank will act based on economic data in the coming months, even if its actions are perceived as affecting the general election in November. "We are very focused on assessing the economic outlook and making changes that are appropriate without taking politics into account," she said.
This piece has been updated with Yellen's comments.