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The Federal Reserve is about to raise interest rates as inflation continues to surge

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 03: U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell collects his notebooks as he testifies before a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on the Fed's "Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress," on Capitol Hill on March 3, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell collects his notebooks as he testifies before the Senate Banking Committee in Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., on March 3, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Fed is likely to raise interest rates on Wednesday for the first time since 2018.

The Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates Wednesday for the first time since 2018, kickstarting its efforts to tackle the country's highest inflation in four decades.

Additional rate hikes are likely to follow in the months to come, as the Fed gradually reverses the extremely easy money policies it's pursued since the beginning of the pandemic.

"We need to move away from very low interest rates," Fed chairman Jerome Powell told lawmakers earlier this month. "They're not appropriate for the current situation in the economy."

Annual inflation reached 7.9% last month, reflecting the steepest rise in prices since 1982. Price increases have proven larger and more long-lasting than the Fed expected, as businesses struggle to keep pace with surging consumer demand.

"Inflation is all too high," Powell said. "We're going to use our tools to bring it down."

The Fed faces a tricky balance

The central bank is walking a tightrope, though. Officials hope to tamp down spending just enough to bring prices under control without tipping the economy into recession.

That balancing act was made even tougher by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which triggered a sharp jump in gasoline and grain prices. Those increases are further raising inflation prospects in the near term, while also threatenening to slow economic growth.

"The more money consumers are pouring into the gas tank, the more money that's being spent at the grocery store, the less money that's available for other discretionary spending," said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com.

The Fed is expected to proceed cautiously at first, raising short-term interest rates Wednesday by one-quarter of one percent. Powell said larger or more frequent rate hikes could follow in the coming months, if inflation doesn't begin to decline soon, as officials expect.

The Fed will issue new economic projections

In December, most Fed policymakers thought they would need to raise interest rates about three times this year, by a quarter-percentage point each time.

Since then, the inflation outlook has worsened, and policy-makers are likely to telegraph a more aggressive series of rate hikes when they update their forecasts later Wednesday.

Even so, borrowing costs are likely to remain low by historical standards.

"It's going to be quite some time before interest rates themselves become a headwind to the economy," McBride said. "We're starting from near-zero levels and the Fed is likely to move in quarter-point baby steps."

Rising interest rates will quickly result in higher borrowing costs for credit cards and car loans.

Mortgage rates have already increased. According to Freddie Mac, the average 30-year fixed-rate home loan cost 3.85% last week, up from 3.05% a year ago.

People with money in the bank, however, may not see increased interest on their savings accounts.

"Most banks are already swimming in deposits," McBride said. "They're going to be very slow to raise interest rates and pass along those benefits to savers, if they even do so at all."

Some online banks may be quicker to boost interest payments on deposits — though not enough to offset the erosion of value from inflation.

Inflation proved more stubborn than the Fed expected

For much of last year, Fed officials thought that inflation would be "transitory," easing on its own as the public health outlook improved and snarled supply chains were straightened out.

That forecast proved overly optimistic. Although the U.S. has now recovered more than 90% of the jobs that were lost during the pandemic, businesses continue to struggle with shortages of workers and materials.

Supply challenges could be aggravated by a fresh surge of coronavirus infections in China, which has prompted an aggressive crackdown, shuttering factories in the high-tech hub of Shenzhen.

While some price increases are clearly the result of pandemic-related shortages — like the shortage of semiconductors that contributed to the high cost of new cars — inflation is increasingly widespread. It's affecting the cost of necessities such as rentand electricity as well as discretionary items, like baseball tickets.

Wages have also been climbing, though not as fast as prices on average.

The Fed is on the lookout for the kind of wage-price feedback loop that contributed to runaway inflation in the 1970s, when workers demanded higher pay to offset rising prices and employers' growing payroll costs were passed along to customers.

One warning sign of such a wage-price spiral would be a jump in long-term expectations for inflation. A new survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of New Yorkfinds Americans think inflation will still be 6% a year from now, but will settle back to 3.8% within three years. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.