The Markets Are Getting Ahead of the Fed

It’s too early to start celebrating. That’s the Federal Reserve’s sober message — though given half a chance, the markets won’t heed it.

In a news conference on Wednesday, and in written statements after its latest policymaking meeting, the Fed did what it could to restrain Wall Street’s enthusiasm.

“It’s far too early to declare victory and there are certainly risks” still facing the economy, Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said. But stocks shot higher anyway, with the S&P 500 on the verge of a new record.

The Fed indicated that it was too early to count on a “soft landing” for the economy — a reduction in inflation without a recession — though that is increasingly the Wall Street consensus. An early decline in the federal funds rate, the benchmark short-term rate that the Fed controls directly, isn’t a sure thing, either, though Mr. Powell said the Fed has begun discussing rate cuts, and the markets are, increasingly, counting on them.

The markets have been climbing since July — and have been positively buoyant since late October — on the assumption that truly good times are in the offing. That may turn out to be a correct assumption — one that could be helpful to President Biden and the rest of the Democratic Party in the 2024 elections.

But if you were looking for certainty about a joyful 2024, the Fed didn’t provide it in this week’s meeting. Instead, it went out of its way to say that it is positioning itself for maximum flexibility. Prudent investors may want to do the same.

Reasons for Optimism

On Wednesday, the Fed said it would leave the federal funds rate where it stands now, at about 5.3 percent. That’s roughly 5 full percentage points higher than it was in early in 2022.

Inflation, the glaring economic problem at the start of the year, has dropped sharply thanks, in part, to those steep interest rate increases. The Consumer Price Index rose 3.1 percent in the year through November. That was still substantially above the Fed’s target of 2 percent, but way below the inflation peak of 9.1 percent in

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