Federal Reserve officials raised interest rates for a third time this year and reaffirmed their outlook for further gradual hikes well into 2019, risking fresh criticism from President Donald Trump.

The quarter-point increase boosted the benchmark federal funds rate to a target range of 2 per cent to 2.25 per cent. The move reflected an upbeat assessment of the economy that was identical to the central bank’s last policy statement eight weeks ago, despite concerns over Trump’s escalating trade war.

Growth and job gains have been “strong” and inflation remains near the central bank’s 2 per cent target, the Federal Open Market Committee said in its statement Wednesday following a two-day meeting in Washington.

Barring a negative surprise in the economy, updated “ dot plot” forecasts made a December rate hike almost certain, as the number of FOMC officials expecting another increase by year-end grew to a bigger majority of 12, from eight in the previous round of projections in June.

In the statement’s only change from the previous one issued Aug. 1, the committee dropped its long-standing description of monetary policy as “accommodative.” That’s an acknowledgment rates have moved closer to the neutral level which neither boosts nor restrains the economy.

The tweak in language led investors to sell the dollar and buy Treasuries on the assumption it meant the Fed would be less aggressive in the future. The Bloomberg dollar spot index fell as much as 0.3 per cent to a session low and the yield on 10-year Treasuries dropped to as low as 3.061 per cent from around 3.08 per cent before the decision.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and his colleagues are trying to pull off a feat the central bank has accomplished only once in its 104-year history: Engineer a soft landing of the economy by raising rates just enough to prevent overheating, but not so much that they trigger a recession.

During a press conference after the decision, Powell said the removal of the sentence about policy accommodation doesn’t signal a change in the Fed’s path for gradual tightening guided by incoming economic data. Even after today’s hike, policy remains accommodative, he told reporters. “This is a pretty good moment for the U.S. economy,” he said.

While calling the economy strong and financial vulnerabilities moderate, he also said the central bank is hearing a “rising chorus” of concern about tariffs and the U.S.’s turn toward protectionist trade policies. Asked about the pressure from Trump to keep rates low, Powell said the Fed is focused on its mission to keep the economy healthy and doesn’t consider politics in the process.

Eighth Hike

After eight hikes since late 2015, the fed funds rate is now at the highest level since October 2008, just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

Voters on the committee backed the decision 9-0.

Trump isn’t making the Fed’s tricky task any easier. Aside from criticizing recent Fed rate hikes, he’s launched a trade war with China that threatens both to slow growth and boost inflation. Tariffs on an additional US$200 billion of imported goods from China took effect Monday, along with retaliatory levies from Beijing.

Fed officials remained skeptical that Trump’s tax cuts will result in a persistent boost to economic growth. While they raised projections for expansion this year and next, they predicted that growth would slow to 1.8 per cent by 2021. That’s in line with their estimate for the economy’s long-run potential and contrasts with the Trump administration’s goal of sustained 3 per cent growth.

In their post-meeting statement and updated economic projections, Fed policy makers made no mention of trade worries and showed no sign they would soon halt the upward march of rates.

“The committee expects that further gradual increases in the target range for the federal funds rate will be consistent with sustained expansion of economic activity, strong labor market conditions and inflation near the committee’s symmetric 2 per cent objective,” the statement said, repeating previous language.

Year Ahead

The committee, enlarged to 16 by the recent addition of new Fed Vice Chairman Richard Clarida, continued to anticipate three hikes in 2019, according to the median estimate.

Investors have questioned whether the Fed will ultimately prove so aggressive, preferring to price in two increases next year. If the central bank’s outlook prevails, traders will eventually be forced to adjust their rate-hike expectations and lift long- term rates.

It was the first time since this round of rate increases began in late 2015 that the Fed hasn’t described policy as “accommodative.” Any signal in that change, however, is unclear.

“The removal of ’accommodative’ is not a dovish signal,” said Carl Riccadonna, chief U.S. economist at Bloomberg Economics. “The rates projections show that the vast majority on the committee continue to believe that rates are below neutral.”

The location of a neutral rate for policy is the subject of heated debate, with estimates within the committee ranging from 2.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent. Powell has repeatedly played down the importance of neutral given economists’ inability to know precisely where it lies.

Moreover, policy makers haven’t agreed on what they should do when rates reach neutral. Some favor a pause while others argue they should push rates above neutral before stopping.

Balanced Risks

Fed officials, in the statement, repeated their assessment that “risks to the economic outlook appear roughly balanced.”

The median forecast in the most recent set of projections continued to show officials expect borrowing costs to move above their estimate for the long-run neutral rate, reaching 3.4 per cent in 2020, the same as in the June forecasts.

The new projections also included the first numbers for 2021, when officials see rates remaining steady at 3.4 per cent. The median long-run neutral estimate moved up slightly to 3 per cent from 2.9 per cent.

The Fed’s hike widens a gap with its peers elsewhere. The European Central Bank said it will maintain its policy rate of minus 0.4 per cent at least through next summer, while the Bank of Japan is set to stick with its current settings until 2020.

Higher U.S. rates, though, may force more emerging markets to tighten monetary policy to defend their currencies at a time when investors are punishing those with fault lines such as large current-account deficits.

Forecast Details

Median GDP growth estimate for 2018 rose to 3.1 per cent from 2.8 per cent; 2019 up to 2.5 per cent from 2.4 per cent, 2020 unchanged at 2 per cent, new 2021 projection at 1.8 per cent; longer-run figure unchanged at 1.8 per cent Median unemployment-rate estimate for fourth-quarter 2018 rose to 3.7 per cent from 3.6 per cent; 2019 and 2020 forecasts unchanged at 3.5 per cent, 2021 at 3.7 per cent; longer-run figure unchanged at 4.5 per cent Median estimates of PCE, core PCE inflation unchanged except for 2019 PCE projection, which moved to 2 per cent from 2.1 per cent.