WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve raised interest rates on Wednesday and signaled that two additional increases were on the way this year, as officials expressed confidence that the United States economy was strong enough for borrowing costs to rise without choking off economic growth.
Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chairman, speaking in unusually blunt terms at a news conference on Wednesday, said the economy had strengthened significantly since the 2008 financial crisis and was approaching a “normal” level that could allow the Fed to soon step back and play less of a hands-on role in encouraging economic activity.
The Fed’s optimism about the state of the economy is likely to translate into higher borrowing costs for cars, home mortgages and credit cards over the next year as the central bank raises interest rates more quickly than was anticipated.
Wednesday’s rate increase was the second this year and the seventh since the end of the Great Recession and brings the Fed’s benchmark rate to a range of 1.75 to 2 percent. The last time the rate topped 2 percent was in late summer 2008, when the economy was contracting and the Fed was cutting rates toward zero, where they would remain for years after the financial crisis
“The decision you see today is another sign that the U.S. economy is in great shape,” Mr. Powell said after the Fed’s two-day policy meeting. “Most people who want to find jobs are finding them.”
The increases this year are part of a gradual series of steps to return rates to historically normal levels, and they reflect both the Fed’s confidence in America’s economic strength and its commitment to bring the inflation rate to its target of 2 percent.
But the march toward higher interest rates comes as much of America’s work force continues to experience slow wage growth, despite a tight labor market that should, in theory, translate into higher wages as businesses compete for workers.
The rise in consumer prices over the last year has effectively wiped out any wage increases for nonsupervisory workers, the latest Consumer Price Index data suggests.
That is odd for an economy with a tight labor market, with unemployment running at a 3.8 percent. And some analysts say it is a reason for officials to slow their pace of rate increases, since the benefits of a hot economy have not yet translated into a significant wage increase for workers.
At a comparable time of low unemployment, in 2000, “wages were growing at near 4 percent year over year and the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation was 2.5 percent,” both above today’s levels, Tara Sinclair, a senior fellow at the Indeed Hiring Lab, said in a research note. “Too many increases too quickly could choke the economy before we really see how good it could get.”
Mr. Powell played down concerns about slow wage growth, acknowledging it is “a bit of a puzzle” but suggesting that it would normalize as the economy continued to strengthen.
The Fed chairman said growth was being lifted, at least in the short term, by tax cuts and government spending increases signed into law by President Trump last year. And he dismissed, for now, concerns that Mr. Trump’s trade policies, including tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, were hurting growth, saying the Fed had yet to see any data indicating an impact.
“So right now, we don’t see that in the numbers at all. The economy is very strong, the labor market is strong, growth is strong,” he said, adding, “I would put it down as more of a risk.”
In a statement released at the end of the two-day meeting, Fed officials noted that economic activity had been rising “at a solid rate” — a change from their May statement, when they called the rate “moderate.” Fed officials now expect the economy to grow at a 2.8 percent rate this year, up from a 2.7 percent forecast in March. The unemployment rate is now projected to fall to 3.6 percent by year’s end, down from a forecast of 3.8 percent in March.
“The changes from the Fed today should not come as a surprise, given recent economic developments, but they nonetheless signal a more hawkish outlook for the next few quarters,” Eric Winograd, a senior economist at AllianceBernstein, said in a research note.
The Fed now faces a tricky balancing act as it tries to calibrate how to keep the economy chugging along. Raising rates too quickly could snuff out the economic recovery, which has finally begun to gain steam after years of sluggish growth. But not raising rates fast enough could allow inflation to spiral out of control, driving up prices and potentially plunging the economy back into a recession.
A few Fed officials have raised concerns that the inflation trend could accelerate rapidly, forcing the Fed to raise rates faster than expected to keep the economy from overheating. They appeared to have won a convert in Wednesday’s projections, which now show that a majority of officials expect rates to rise to a range of 2.25 to 2.5 percent by the end of this year.
Officials continue to project three additional increases in 2019, but reduced the number of forecast increases for 2020 from two to one.
A faster pace of rate increases could slow economic growth, potentially frustrating Mr. Trump. But Fed officials signaled a willingness to allow inflation to remain slightly above their 2 percent target for several years — which would be accommodative for growth.