WASHINGTON – After nearly two years and 15 interest rate increases, the end of Federal Reserve rate hikes may finally be in sight.
Many analysts think it could be one more and done. They believe the central bank will push the federal funds rate up by one last quarter-point to 5 percent at its next meeting on May 10 and then move to the sidelines for the rest of the year.
"We are headed to 5 percent almost certainly, but after that the Fed will pause because they will see enough evidence that economic growth is moderating," said David Jones, head of DMJ Advisors, a private consulting firm.
Jones and other analysts took that position based on the statement the Fed issued after its Tuesday meeting, the first with new Chairman Ben Bernanke presiding.
The central bank boosted the funds rate to 4.75 percent and retained language it had used at Alan Greenspan's last meeting that "some further policy firming may be needed" to make sure inflation does not get out of control.
"Basically, the new boss has the same worries as the old boss," said Joel Naroff, head of Naroff Economic Advisors, another forecasting firm. "For the markets, this cannot be good news."
Indeed, the Dow Jones industrial average plunged by 95.57 points on Tuesday as the Fed statement dashed hopes that the central bank could be through with raising rates.
The central bank's brief statement explaining its actions changed very little with the switch from Greenspan, who retired after the last Fed meeting on Jan. 31, and the first interest-rate setting discussion on Tuesday with Bernanke presiding.
"Mr. Bernanke has chosen incrementalism over radical change in his first meeting," said Ian Shepherson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, another consulting firm.
Some have suggested Bernanke may soon begin lobbying his colleagues to move toward greater openness by doing such things as adopting a specific target range for inflation or expanding the statements the Fed issues after each meeting.
Other possibilities include publishing more frequent Fed economic forecasts, expanding the minutes or possibly even holding a news conference after the Fed's closed-door deliberations.
Some saw the first slight movement toward Bernanke's goal of more openness in the paragraph in Tuesday's statement discussing current economic conditions, which doubled in length from the January statement.
"Economic growth has rebounded strongly in the current quarter but appears likely to moderate to a more sustainable pace," the statement said, offering an upbeat assessment of growth.
On inflation, the Fed said, "As yet, the run-up in the prices of energy and other commodities appears to have had only a modest effect on core inflation."
Analysts said this more detailed economic discussion could be the first of a series of changes by Bernanke to build on Greenspan's effort to make the Fed a more open institution. But they said Bernanke is likely to start with a go-slow approach to ensure he does not roil financial markets.
"I don't think he wants the markets to start thinking about the things he might change. I think he wants to take it easy at first," said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York.
While many analysts believe the Fed will raise rates only one more time in May, some economists said they think there could be at least two or possibly three more as the Fed is confronted with a spillover of higher inflation from last year's big jumps in energy costs and rising wage pressures.
Stephen Stanley, chief economist at RBS Greenwich Capital, predicted the Fed would raise rates three more times because of concerns about inflation.
The Fed's goal is to push rates high enough to slow interest-sensitive sectors of the economy such as housing to a more moderate growth rate that will keep inflation from getting out of hand.
There are already signs that housing — a standout performer for five years — is slowing with sales of new homes falling in February by the largest amount in nearly nine years.
Wyss said he looked for 30-year mortgage rates, currently at 6.32 percent, to be close to 7 percent by early next year. That will be enough to trigger a 10 percent drop in housing construction and a slowdown in the double-digit rate of price appreciation of recent years, he said.