Edmonton Journal

Rate hike appears no closer in U.S.

Economy barely grew over winter

- MARTIN CRUTSINGER The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve took a gloomier view of the U.S. economy Wednesday after a winter in which growth nearly froze. It offered no sign a rate increase might be coming soon.

On a day when the government said the economy barely grew in the January-March quarter, the Fed appeared no closer to raising its benchmark rate from a record low. It noted in a statement that growth has slowed, business investment has softened and exports have declined.

It also repeated previous language that it needs to be “reasonably confident” that low inflation will move back to its two-per-cent target. The U.S. central bank removed all calendar references — a signal that its decisionma­king and timetable will be wholly dependent on data.

The only parts of its policy statement the Fed changed Wednesday dealt with its assessment of economic conditions. The new statement said growth has “slowed during the winter.” That was a downgrade from its March statement, which said growth had “moderated somewhat.”

But it partly blamed “transitory factors” for the decelerati­on and reiterated that it expects the economy will expand moderately.

David Jones, an economist who has written several books on the Fed, said a rate hike is unlikely until September.

“There is no question that the statement was full of negatives about the economy, but I think the Fed believes most of the slowdown will be temporary,” Jones said. “There will be a bounceback in growth in the second quarter, and that is why I think the Fed will start raising rates in September.”

Earlier Wednesday, the government estimated that the economy grew at a barely discernibl­e annual rate of 0.2 per cent in the January-March quarter, battered by harsh weather, plunging exports and scaled-back energy drilling.

It was the poorest economic showing in a year and was down sharply from a 2.2-percent annual growth rate in the fourth quarter.

The job market has also slowed of late. U.S. employers added just 126,000 workers in March, the fewest since December 2013, breaking a 12-month streak of gains above 200,000.

The Fed’s unanimous decision Wednesday means it will keep its key rate near zero, where it’s been since December 2008. That’s when the central bank slashed the rate as low as it could to support an economy heading into the deepest recession since the 1930s.

Until the economy’s recent slowdown, many economists had thought the first rate hike could occur in June. But as evidence has grown that the economy likely slowed significan­tly in the first quarter, analysts have been pushing back their estimates of the first Fed rate hike until September or possibly even later.

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