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Next week’s Fed meeting will be all about the ‘dots’

Next week’s Fed meeting will have a lot of moving parts: a decision on whether to hike rates, the likely beginning of the balance sheet unwinding, and an update on how economic growth is likely to trend.

One factor, though, could stand out: The so-called dot plot, which charts where individual Fed members expect interest rates to be over the next few years. Policymakers update the chart every quarter, and market participants watch it closely for expectations on monetary policy.

Until recently, the market thought it had the Fed figured out. With economic growth stable, the unemployment rate continuing to come down and inflation trending toward the 2 percent target, the Fed likely would continue on a path of steady, gradual rate increases.

However, recent statements from officials indicating that inflation may stay under the Fed’s target rate for longer than they thought has kindled curiosity about what that will mean for the rate trajectory.

“What will move the market more is if the dots on the dot plot start to come down,” said Jim Caron, fixed income portfolio manager at Morgan Stanley Investment Management.

Here’s what the dot plot looked like after the June meeting. Note that there are four projections — for the years 2017-19, and then for the longer run. Each dot represents a member of the Federal Open Market Committee, which sets monetary policy. Twelve members vote, though all committee members get a dot:

Source: Federal Reserve

Like many Fed-watchers, Caron indeed is expecting the path to move downward. That would reflect a feeling that rates won’t be going up as much as the Fed believes. Current projections have the benchmark funds rate hitting 3 percent in 2019, a measure that also is considered the “long-run” rate that would be neither stimulative nor restrictive.

“I don’t believe that,” Caron said. “If the Fed starts to say the 3 percent terminal rate is too much and we move long-term to 2.75 percent, that’s going to have more of an impact on the yield curve, create more of a flattening bias.”

Typically, a flatter yield curve arises from lowering expectations on the economy. In this case, it likely will be more of a reflection on where the Fed thinks inflation is going.

Under its dual mandate, the Fed is charged with maintaining full employment and price stability. Part of that entails a 2 percent inflation rate that officials believe promotes a healthy level of growth but not so much that buying power is sapped significantly.

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