The Federal Reserve did as expected, leaving interest rates alone, and it offered few clues about when they might rise.
The central bank's monetary policy committee wrapped up its two-day July meeting by maintaing short-term interest rates at 0.25% to 0.5%, a decision that was unanimous except for Kansas City Fed President Esther George, who wanted to boost the rate by one-quarter of a percentage point. In its statement explaining the move, the committee said that "job gains were strong in June following weak growth in May and the economy is "expanding at a moderate rate." The outlook for rate hikes depends on incoming economic data, the statement said,
"What we should get, but didn't get, is an indication of when they might raise rates," said Dean Maki, chief economist at Point72 Asset Management, the private office for investor Stephen A. Cohen. "It was more confirmation that the Fed sees things as slightly better than they did the last time they met (last month). We also know they are not confident enough to even be hinting at a September rate hike.''
The Fed is going slowly in part because it was caught by surprise earlier this spring, Maki said. Speeches by Fed officials in May signaled the central bank might raise rates in June as the current expansion enters its eighth year -- making it the third-longest post-World War II growth period in the U.S. That trails the 1990s Internet boom and the 1980s expansion, whose 92-month duration the current recovery is likely to reach in 2017, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The central bank didn't anticipate the brief shock financial markets sustained after British voters passed a referendum proposal to leave the European Union, Maki said. Neither did it anticipate that the May jobs report, released before the Fed's June meeting, would be as weak as it was. The Labor Department said the economy added only 37,000 jobs in May (later revised to 11,000), before adding 287,000 jobs in June.
As a result, the Fed's June statement was notably more bearish than what central bankers had been saying in public. In that statement, the monetary policy committee emphasized the slowdown in job growth and the weakness in business investment, and George joined the majority in delaying any rate hike.
The Fed's hesitancy has spurred criticism from economists who think the central bank's vacillations are themselves a cause of the sluggish business investment that prevents the economy from growing more rapidly. That has become a problem for investment-dependent companies like Caterpillar (CAT) - Get Report and United Technologies , even as strong auto spending has bolstered General Motors (GM) - Get Report and Ford (F) - Get Report while consumer-spending and advertising-driven companies like Apple (AAPL) - Get Report , Facebook (FB) - Get Report and Amazon (AMZN) - Get Report have thrived.
"They did say things are getting a little better in the labor market and the economy, but the one comment that matters is: 'Near-term risks to the economic outlook have diminished,'" said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors, which advises mid-Atlantic region banks and other clients. "As if they ever were actually there. So, they did the usual. One meeting they raised the specter of the problem and the next it was, 'Never mind.'"
The economy needs about 100,000 new jobs per month to keep the 4.9% unemployment rate falling, Maki said. He has forecast that unemployment will average 4.4% in the fourth quarter, when presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton face the voters.
"They used a lot of words to say very little," Regions Financial chief economist Richard Moody said. "Slightly more upbeat assessment of the economy, and saying the "near-term risks to the economic outlook has diminished" is a half-step on the way to saying the risks are 'nearly balanced,'" an expression the bank uses when it wants to signal rate hikes are possible soon, he said.
Markets won't get a clear read on the Fed's intentions until August, Maki and Moody agreed. Maki is pointing toward Fed chair Janet Yellen's Aug. 26 speech at the central bank's conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo., while Moody thinks the minutes of this week's meeting will answer questions about a week earlier.
"The bottom line is that if you want to know what happened in this week's meeting, come back on Aug. 17 when the minutes are released," he said. "I suspect the discussion was much more lively than is implied by today's statement."
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.