The U.S. Federal Reserve is bringing out the big guns — or at least the biggest guns it's willing to use at the moment, given widespread economic uncertainty. The central bank is raising its benchmark interest rate by half a percent and starting the process of winding down its $9 trillion balance sheet in an effort to bring down rampant inflation.
This would be the Federal Reserve's first 50-basis-point hike since 2000. Usually, the Fed sticks to 25-point moves in order to ease markets into tighter economic conditions but increasing price pressures have spurred the bank to take more aggressive action.
In theory, faster, higher rate hikes should trickle down to the rest of the economy more quickly, eventually leading businesses and consumers to cut their spending. (Read Cheddar's rate hike explainer on how this is supposed to happen behind the scenes.) But many economists are skeptical that the Fed is really in the driver's seat when it comes to inflation.
"We have already started to see some natural slowing of inflation even before the Fed has really aggressively taken action," said Rhea Thomas, senior economist at Wilmington Trust.
She pointed to the fact that behind the big headline numbers, both major inflation measures in March showed a slight deceleration in price increases. Taking out volatile food and energy costs, the core readings for the consumer price index (CPI) and the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) index increased at a slower rate in March than the previous month.
A scattering of other economic indicators is pointing in the same direction. Consumer spending slowed in March. Demand for trucking is beginning to sink, and major companies like Amazon are signaling the end of pandemic-era expansions and hiring sprees.
All of this points to a possible drop-off in demand that may have little to do with the Fed.
"I don't think the hike is going to have a particularly large impact," said Rohan Gray, a professor at Willamette University College of Law and the president of the Modern Monetary Network. "We're still talking about relatively low rates in general, and I'm pretty skeptical of using rate increases as a tool to fight inflation, until you get to very high rate increases, like Volcker."
Gray alluded to former Fed chair Paul Volcker, who raised the Fed Funds Rate by 20 percent in 1980, bringing down inflation but crashing the U.S. economy in the process. Powell said he can avoid this fate by pulling off what he calls a "soft landing." In other words, he believes the Fed can bring down inflation through more gradual rate hikes without causing a recession.
Some have questioned whether this balancing act is possible, and there are some signs the U.S. economy is already beginning to weaken. The Commerce Department reported last week that U.S. gross domestic product fell at an annualized rate of 1.4 percent in the first quarter, though some question the importance of this single data point.
David Russell, vice president of market intelligence at TradeStation, said the drop in GDP stemmed from a growing trade deficit, which is related to a strengthening U.S. dollar.
"One of the things that people aren't talking about is that U.S. dollars are in a monster bull market right now because of the Fed," he said.
He also noted that rate hikes are not likely to cause a recession. At the same time, he's also in the camp that says inflation will come down on its own in the coming months.
"My view is that we're likely to see a surprise moderation in inflation relatively soon, probably in the next three to six months," he said.
He added that the current economic expansion is less dependent on debt, so tighter credit conditions won't have as severe an economic impact as in past tightening cycles.
One exception is housing. Mortgage rates track closely with interest rates and have already shot up significantly in anticipation of rate hikes. The average 30-year mortgage started the year at 3.29 percent and is now about 5.5 percent, according to Mortgage News Daily.
"The Fed's rhetoric is starting to slow the housing market," said Thomas of Wilmington Trust. "That will slow one of the biggest components of inflation."
However, cooling down the real estate market doesn't address the underlying housing shortage that led to the overheated market in the first place. It also doesn't address other major categories of inflation, such as food, energy, and used cars.