FOMC preview: It's the dots

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The drama in the Federal Open Market Committee's March 20-21 meeting surrounds future rate hikes rather than the current expected one.

Perhaps Dwight Johnston, chief economist for the California Credit Union League, said it best: "It would be a shock if the Federal Reserve does not raise short-term interest rates."

With the increase widely expected, and priced in, "there should be no reaction in the financial markets," he added

With Jerome Powell taking over as chair of the Fed, and holding his first press conference after the meeting, most observers expect him to stay close to his message from his monetary report to Congress. "He should confirm that the Fed plans at least two more hikes later this year, although he won't commit to an exact pace," Johnston said.

The panel always hedges its bets, with phrases, such as, "if conditions permit," or "if the economy grows as expected."

What are the biggest risks this time? "If a trade war erupts, that could slow Fed rate hikes," Johnston said. "But on the flipside, we could get more than three interest-rate increases this year if we see a surge in inflation."

Also on the three-hikes-this-year bandwagon, is Morgan Stanley economist Ellen Zentner. "While too early to call for four hikes this year, the FOMC moves decisively in that direction," she wrote of this week's meeting.

The SEP will acknowledge faster economic growth and declining unemployment, "but leave core inflation unchanged," she said.

And while the dot plot will "show a pronounced upward drift," Morgan Stanley expects the Fed to "leave the median number of hikes at three this year, raise the median path to three in 2019 and leave 2020 at one. We think the longer-run neutral rate remains unchanged, though it is a close call."

On the other side of the debate, Bryce Doty, senior vice president with Sit Investment Associates, expects four rate increases this year, and believes the SEP will reflect that. "Powell has stated the market does not need stimulus," Doty said in a Bond Buyer podcast. "He's prepping the markets to expect four rate increases."

Additionally, he said, there's "momentum building for more rate increases," as a result of tax reform and its effects, "combined with a spike in inflation expectations."

BNP Paribas Chief Market Economist Paul Mortimer-Lee also sees the dots moving up. "Along with its revised economic forecasts, we anticipate a bumped-up rates projection profile. We expect to see the median 2018 rate dot shift up to 2.25-2.50%, implying four hikes for the year (from three in December), and for the 2019 dot to shift up to about 2.875%, implying two hikes (same as in December). We expect the median 2020 implication to remain for one hike. Additionally, it is possible the FOMC will raise the long run rate to 3% on the basis that the real equilibrium rate has risen."

As for the press conference, Mortimer-Lee expects "Chair Powell to reiterate that headwinds are shifting to tailwinds."

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Monetary policy Jerome Powell Federal Reserve FOMC