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How the Fed could do a smaller rate hike and still upset markets

<i>Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images</i><br/>Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during morning trading on December 06
Getty Images
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during morning trading on December 06

By Nicole Goodkind, CNN

The Federal Reserve is expected to respond to persistently high inflation by hiking interest rates half a point on Wednesday. That will mark its seventh and final painful hike of the year, albeit a smaller one than the last four historically high three-quarter point increases.

But the main event at December’s meeting will be the Federal Reserve’s highly anticipated Summary of Economic Projections and what’s known colloquially as the dot plot. Investors will be paying close attention to these forecasts for clues about the path of rate hikes in the new year and beyond. They’re worried that they’ll show a more aggressive monetary policy tightening path, indicating that more hikes are coming next year.

What’s happening: At the end of the Federal Reserve’s two-day meeting this week, the central bank will release its economic outlook. That forecast, which is updated four times a year, includes a chart which plots out an array of dots, showing where each of the Fed’s 19 leaders expect interest rates to go in the future.

Former Fed chair Ben Bernanke first created the dot plot in 2012, mostly as a way to assure the public that Fed leaders planned to keep interest rates low for the time being. Now the opposite is true, the dots have become a signal that interest rates will remain elevated into the future — spooking investors and Fed watchers alike.

The problem is that it’s difficult to predict what the future actually holds. As economic data changes, so do Fed projections.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell warned last year that “the dots are not a great forecaster of future rate moves,” and that they should be taken “with a big, big grain of salt.” But that doesn’t stop investors from reading into them.

Dot-plot madness: The dot-plot release could take a bite out of market sentiment this week, even as investors cheer an easing of rate hikes.

“We think the markets are too sanguine on rates after the first quarter and we expect Powell to take a more hawkish tone and for the dots to indicate higher rates for a longer period of time than what is currently being priced in by the futures markets,” wrote Cliff Hodge, chief investment officer for Cornerstone Wealth in a recent note. “A ‘hawkish’ step-down so to say.”

The question is how big of a jump will there be in the dots. Back in December 2021, the Fed was only expecting rates to finish this year at about 0.9%.

In a note on Monday, Goldman Sachs analysts said they expect the median “dot” to rise to a new peak in Federal fund rates of 5%-5.25%, up from 4.5%-4.75% in September. That would mean Fed officials expect to raise rates by half a percent more than they did three months ago, when the plot was last released.

What else: Wednesday will also bring the Fed’s latest forecasts for the unemployment rate and gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Those numbers will highlight whether Fed officials think recession is likely and how high their tolerance for pain is as they continue the fight to bring down persistent inflation.

Economists at EY-Parthenon believe that projections for real GDP growth will likely be revised down from 1.2% in the fourth quarter of 2023 to around 0%. Unemployment rate projections, they say, will likely approach 5% (from 4.4% in the September update).

The Federal Reserve announces its rate hike decision Wednesday at 2 p.m., followed by a press conference with Powell at 2.30 p.m.

‘Unprecedented’ strike: 100,000 UK nurses set to walk off the job

As many as 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing will walk out across England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Thursday in the first of two days of strikes this month to protest poor pay and working conditions. They plan to walk out again on December 20, reports my colleague Anna Cooban.

It’s the first time in its 106-year history that the RCN — the UK’s biggest nursing union — has gone on strike in England. The action has been sparked by a cost-of-living crisis that has slashed nurses’ spending power nearly three years after the start of a pandemic that pushed many to their limits.

“It is pretty unprecedented,” Billy Palmer, senior fellow at Nuffield Trust, a health research firm, told CNN. While small pockets of nursing staff have walked out before, the country’s National Health Service has seen “nothing of this scale until now,” he added.

That is partly because, for most of its history, the RCN had a “no strike” policy. In 1995, the union changed its rules, allowing strikes as long as they did not compromise patient care.

“Patient safety is always paramount,” the RCN says on its website, adding that some nursing staff would continue to work through the strike. The RCN has promised to maintain critical services, including chemotherapy and dialysis treatments, during this month’s stoppages.

The nurses join hundreds of thousands of other British workers who are striking this December, including rail staff, postal workers and ambulance drivers. At the center of these disputes is pay, which is failing to keep pace with inflation that hit a 41-year high of 11.1% in October.

It is the broadest wave of industrial unrest since the country’s infamous “winter of discontent” in the late 1970s, when huge numbers of workers, from truck drivers to gravediggers, went on strike.

The chaos has prompted Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to warn that “tough” new laws restricting strike action are on their way.

Tesla: Our ‘failure’ to make actual self-driving cars ‘is not fraud’

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said numerous times since 2015 that Tesla cars would be entirely self-driving in two years, or less. But years after his self-imposed deadlines have blown by, it still hasn’t happened. Even when equipped with a $15,000 technology package that is literally called “Full Self Driving Capability,” a Tesla car can’t actually drive by itself, reports my colleague Peter Valdes-Dapena.

Now, lawyers for Tesla are arguing that while the company may have failed to live up to these lofty goals, that doesn’t mean it perpetuated a fraud, as alleged in a class-action lawsuit filed in September.

“Mere failure to realize a long-term, aspirational goal is not fraud,” Tesla’s lawyers wrote in a November 28 court filing, asking that the suit be dismissed.

The lawsuit cited numerous times when Musk and others at Tesla had stated that, within a year or two, the cars would be fully self-driving thanks to software updates. For instance, in a 2016 Tweet, Musk stated that a Tesla car would be able to drive itself across the United States “by next year,” the suit said.

The lawsuit, filed by the California firm of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, also cited numerous cases of crashes involving the use of Tesla’s driver assist technology.

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