Federal Reserve officials are likely to raise their benchmark short-term interest rate from near zero Wednesday, expecting to slowly ratchet it higher to above 3% in three years.
But that’s if all goes as planned. Their big worry is they’ll end up right back at zero.
Any number of factors could force the Fed to reverse course and cut rates all over again: a shock to the U.S. economy from abroad, persistently low inflation, some new financial bubble bursting and slamming the economy, or lost momentum in a business cycle which, at 78 months, is already longer than 29 of the 33 expansions the U.S. economy has experienced since 1854.
Among 65 economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal this month, not all of whom responded, more than half said it was somewhat or very likely the Fed’s benchmark federal-funds rate would be back near zero within the next five years. Ten said the Fed might even push rates into negative territory, as the European Central Bank and others in Europe have done—meaning financial institutions have to pay to park their money with the central banks.
Traders in futures markets see lower interest rates in coming years than the Fed projects in part because they attach some probability to a return to zero. In December 2016, for example, the Fed projects a 1.375% fed-funds rate. Futures markets put it at 0.76%.