Business owners, homebuilders, consumers and investors have all expressed more optimism about the U.S. economy since election day, even as President Donald Trump’s controversial policy proposals have polarized many Americans.
But the Federal Reserve is hesitant to jump onboard with a rosier economic outlook just yet.
The central bank largely left its economic projections unchanged Wednesday, even as its policymakers voted to raise interest rates for the third time since the financial crisis.
Speaking to reporters following the announcement, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen was careful to keep her comments neutral in relation to President Trump’s proposed fiscal policies.
While Yellen noted that “the economy is doing well,” she said the Fed’s interest rate hike was not a preemptive response to future fiscal policy moves.
"Today’s decision... does not represent a reassessment of the economic outlook or of the appropriate course for monetary policy,” she noted in her first post-policymaking press conference since Trump took office.
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Some of Trump’s proposals, like tax cuts, regulatory reform, and infrastructure spending, could speed up economic growth, whereas protectionist trade policies and stricter immigration laws could slow the economy.
Although reporters repeatedly pressed Yellen to discuss some of these policies in more detail, she said there’s too much uncertainty and it’s too early to predict their overall economic impact.
The central bank’s policymakers are still forecasting three rate hikes this year, including the one announced Wednesday. Meanwhile, they project the U.S. economy will grow 2.1% this year, unchanged from the Fed’s earlier forecasts published in December.
“We haven’t in any way changed our view about where the economy is heading,” Yellen said.
What about that rosier optimism reflected in surveys of businesses and consumers recently? What about the rapid rises in stock prices?
The Fed isn’t ignoring those metrics.
Last month, Bill Dudley, the president of the New York Fed, acknowledged "There's no question that animal spirits have been unleashed a bit post the election."
And on Wednesday, Yellen noted the upward shift in sentiment “is obvious and notable."
But both Yellen and Dudley have said they're also uncertain just how much sentiment impacts spending decisions. In other words, will consumers and businesses walk the talk?
If the optimism expressed in those surveys eventually translates into a pickup in spending by businesses and consumers, then that could affect the Fed’s projections.
“Most of the business people we talk to also have a wait and see attitude,” Yellen said.