What to Watch on Wednesday as the Federal Reserve Meets

Federal Reserve officials will conclude a two-day policy meeting on Wednesday, releasing a fresh decision on interest rates at a time when economic growth remains resilient and inflation has shown recent signs of stubbornness.

Central bankers are widely expected to leave interest rates unchanged. But investors will closely watch their new economic estimates and what Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, says at a news conference for hints at what might come next.

Many economists still expect the Fed to cut interest rates several times before the end of 2024, which could make it cheaper to borrow to buy a house or start a business. But the longer rapid price increases linger, the more likely it is that policymakers will feel the need to keep rates higher for longer in a bid to ensure that inflation is wrestled fully under control.

Here is what to look for in the Fed’s policy statement and its economic projections, which come out at 2 p.m., along with the 2:30 p.m. news conference.

Fed officials are widely expected to keep interest rates at their current level, roughly 5.3 percent, where they have been set since July 2023.

While policymakers projected in December that they would likely make three quarter-point rate cuts this year, they have been trying to keep their options open on when those moves might come. Officials want to make sure that inflation is fully under control before they lower borrowing costs, and for now, both key measures of inflation (the Consumer Price Index and the Personal Consumption Expenditures index) are hovering above the Fed’s 2 percent goal.

Given inflation’s recent staying power, it is possible that officials could predict slightly quicker price increases at the end of 2024 when they release their quarterly economic projections.

This is the first update to the projections since December. Economists will watch the estimates especially closely for what the Fed says about the path ahead for interest rates. They previously showed that policymakers expected rates to fall to 4.6 percent by the end of 2024 and then 3.6 percent by the end of 2025.

That path for interest rate cuts could shift if officials are beginning to think that inflation could take more time and effort to fully stamp out.

Some economists now expect the forecasts to point to two rate cuts in 2024, to a level of about 4.9 percent, rather than the three cuts that were previously expected.

Arguably the most important part of the Fed meeting will be the 2:30 p.m. news conference with Mr. Powell. He has spoken publicly recently, giving two days of congressional testimony in early March, but his Wednesday comments will be closely watched for any updates to his thinking after the Fed’s latest policy debate.

The Fed chair may be asked to clarify a comment he made during those appearances: At one point, Mr. Powell said that it would be appropriate to lower interest rates when the Fed was confident that inflation had come down enough, adding, “and we’re not far from it.”

The mystery is what “not far” means.

Mr. Powell is also likely to reiterate a message he’s been offering for months now, which is that there are risks to cutting rates too early, and there are also risks to leaving rates high for too long.

If the Fed lowers borrowing costs prematurely, before inflation is headed resolutely back to 2 percent, then it could prove even more difficult to fully stamp out price increases down the road. But if the Fed keeps rates high for too long, it risks hurting the job market. And once unemployment begins to rise a little bit, it has the tendency to jump a lot.

Mr. Powell and his colleagues are still trying to pull off a “soft landing” in which the economy cools without spurring large job losses.

“We’re trying to use our policies to keep that growth going, and to keep that labor market strong, while also achieving further progress on inflation,” Mr. Powell said during his testimony.

Fed officials have another policy project on their plate in March. They have signaled in recent communications that they will discuss plans for their balance sheet of bond holdings at this meeting. Fed officials have been shrinking their balance sheet by allowing securities to expire without reinvestment, a process that takes a little bit of steam out of markets and the economy.

The Fed’s balance sheet grew during the pandemic as the central bank purchased bonds in huge sums, first to calm markets and later to stimulate the economy. Officials want to shrink those holdings back to more normal levels to avoid playing such a big role in financial markets. At the same time, they want to avoid shrinking their bond holdings so much that they risk market ruptures.