Markets shrug as Fed leaves rates unchanged and officially unveils plans to scale back bond purchases

U.S. central bankers are finally setting course for a new era of monetary policy during COVID-19.

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve outlined that it would soon begin unwinding the billions of dollars worth of U.S. Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities it has been buying up every month since the beginning of the pandemic, a significant step that Wall Street has been urging the central bank to take as inflation has remained persistently high. The Fed will begin cutting down its bond buying by $15 billion a month, putting it on pace to be discontinue the purchases by summer 2022—though it may adjust the pace of its tapering plans.

“Inflation is elevated, largely reflecting factors that are expected to be transitory,” the Fed said in a statement released Wednesday. “Supply and demand imbalances related to the pandemic and the reopening of the economy have contributed to sizable price increases in some sectors.”

Fed Chair Jerome Powell added in a press conference following the announcement that overall inflation is “running well above” the central bank’s 2% long-term goal. “Our baseline expectation is supply [chain] bottlenecks and shortages will persist well into next year and elevated inflation as well,” Powell said.

The Fed left interest rates unchanged from their near rock-bottom levels.

Investors largely responded to the long-awaited move with a shrug, as the Fed has been signaling for months now that it would begin tapering ahead of the year’s end. The S&P 500 was up 0.09% to $4,634.97, as of 2:08 p.m. ET, while the Nasdaq 100 ticked up 0.26% to $15,690.79.

Wednesday’s announcement does mark a turning point in the U.S. government’s financial response to the pandemic, nonetheless. Until now, the accommodative and ultralow interest rate environment has helped feed corporate America’s debt binge and fuel the rise of risky assets in the financial markets. In 2020, for instance, the amount of debt for nonfinancial businesses in the U.S. grew by 9.1%, versus the average annual rate of 5.5% that was seen in the prior decade, according to a report from Deloitte. Meanwhile, meme stocks have proven to have far more staying power than many on Wall Street expected back in January when shares of GameStop surged on the back of a flood of retail investor interest.

Update, Nov. 3, 2021: This article has been updated with remarks from Fed Chair Jerome Powell.

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