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--Forecasts 3 Hikes In 2018, 2 In '19, Unchg Vs Sept; 2 in 2020
--Lowers Unempl To 3.9% in 2018, 2019 Vs 4.1% Prev; Natural Rate Unchg
--Marks Up GDP Growth Fcast to 2.5% in 2018 Vs 2.1% Prev
--Core Inflation Forecasts Unchanged; Hits 2% Target in 2019
By Jean Yung
     WASHINGTON (MNI) - The Federal Reserve on Wednesday lifted interest 
rates by a quarter percentage point, as expected, but held fast to its 
earlier forecasts for rate hikes in the near term as Congress raced to 
pass tax reform before year-end and the economy continued to grow at a 
healthy pace. 
     The Federal Open Market Committee again signaled that three hikes 
remain likely next year. That officials revised little their policy 
outlook signaled they stayed cautious in judging the macroeconomic 
implications of the $1.5 trillion tax package, the details of which have 
yet to be finalized. 
     An update of the FOMC's Summary of Economic Projections, known as 
the dot plot, called for a federal funds rate in the 2.00% to 
2.25% range by the end of 2018, unchanged from September. Wednesday's 
move raises the target range to 1.25% to 1.50%.  
     Six out of 16 FOMC members, including nonvoters, expect three hikes 
to be appropriate next year, same as in September. Four see four or more 
hikes, down from five. Ahead of the FOMC decision Wednesday, markets had 
priced in just two moves next year. 
     Policymakers projected further interest rate increases -- two each 
in 2019 and 2020, bringing the fed funds rate just above the FOMC's 
estimate of its neutral value at 2.8%, unchanged from September. But 
whereas in September officials expected to raise rates to 2.9% to rein 
in inflation, now they see it necessary to lift rates to 3.1%. 
     In its post-meeting policy statement, the FOMC repeated that the 
stance of monetary policy "remains accommodative, thereby supporting 
strong labor market conditions and a sustained return to 2 percent 
     The wording marks a change from previous statements in which the 
committee said an accommodative stance will support "some further 
strengthening" in labor market conditions and signals officials deem the 
economy already at full employment. 
     The unemployment rate, currently at 4.1%, is already five-tenths 
below its natural rate of 4.6%, and the FOMC said Wednesday they expect 
it to sink further to 3.9% in 2018 and 2019 before reversing course. 
That is two-tenths lower than they thought in September. 
     The passage of the Republican tax plan is expected to have 
implications for monetary policy. It is expected to lift the growth 
outlook, potentially stoking inflationary pressures in an economy at 
full employment. But it was unclear from the policy statement or the SEP 
whether officials upgraded their economic forecasts to reflect the 
faster growth and a stronger labor market than expected or if 
policymakers factored in the potential effect of a tax reduction.     
     The policy statement made no mention of the pending tax 
legislation, stating only that "economic activity has been rising at a 
solid rate." The FOMC now expects growth to hit 2.5% this year and next, 
up from 2.4% and 2.1%, respectively, in September. That momentum should 
taper in 2019 to 2.1% and in 2020 to 2.0%. 
     U.S. GDP expanded at an annualized rate of 3.3% in the third 
quarter, well above its estimated longer run rate of 1.8%.  
     Yet, despite overall solid conditions, inflation has yet to hit the 
Fed's 2% goal. In its policy statement, the FOMC again noted the soft 
inflation data, reiterating that headline and core inflation had 
"declined" this year and are "running below 2 percent." 
     Officials forecast the core personal consumption expenditures 
price index, their preferred measure of inflation, to end the year 
at 1.5% before rising to 1.9% by end-2018 and hitting their target of 2% 
by 2019, same as in September. 
     "Inflation on a 12-month basis is expected to remain somewhat below 
2 percent in the near term but to stabilize around the Committees 2 
percent objective over the medium term," it said, repeating language 
from the November policy statement. 
     They said near-term risks to the outlook appear "roughly balanced." 
     Chicago Fed President Charles Evans and Minneapolis Fed President 
Neel Kashkari dissented from Wednesday's decision to tighten policy, 
preferring to keep rates steady. 
--MNI Washington Bureau; tel: +1 202-371-2121; email: