Bond Market Signals Weakening Case for Interest Rate Increases

Before stock investors decided that the Federal Reserve chairman was flagging the end of interest rate increases, the bond market was signaling the case for raising rates had weakened.

A measure of investors’ expectation for inflation over the next five years has fallen in recent weeks. The difference between the yields on five-year Treasury inflation-protected securities, or TIPS, and the corresponding Treasuries hit 1.74 percentage points Wednesday, its lowest level of the year, according to Tradeweb. That spread is effectively the market’s forecast of where inflation is heading, and it’s down from 2.04 points at the start of October.

Inflation is core to the Fed’s mission. The central bank has a dual mandate of spurring full employment and keeping prices stable. This market’s forecast for inflation is below the Fed’s target for inflation of 2 percent.

Critics of measures like the one above say it’s too sensitive to short-term moves in markets such as oil (and, indeed, the most recent pullback in inflation expectations has corresponded with the tumble in oil prices over the past nine weeks).

Still, the recent slide in the expectations is an indication that investors have grown more concerned about global growth and less worried that the United States’ economy will overheat and cause a jump in inflation.

The Fed has pressed ahead with rate increases this year as the economy has strengthened. Already, the central bank has raised its main policy rate three times and is expected to do so again next month.

But in recent weeks, Fed officials also have appeared to soften their tone about future rate increases. On Wednesday, stocks surged after remarks by the central bank’s chairman, Jerome H. Powell, were interpreted by investors to suggest the Fed could be nearing the end of its push to lift interest rates.

Mr. Powell said interest rate increases were approaching a “neutral” level at which it would no longer provide a stimulus to economic activity. The description contrasted with his statement in October, following the last change in the benchmark rate, that the rate was still “a long way” from neutral.

The personal consumption expenditures price index, the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation, has ticked up this year and was at 2 percent in September.