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Federal Reserve hikes benchmark interest rate to as much as 2.5%

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The U.S. Federal Reserve is raising its key interest rate for the fourth time this year to reflect the U.S. economy’s continued strength but signalling that it expects to slow hikes next year.

The quarter-point hike, to a range of 2.25 per cent to 2.5 per cent, lifted the Fed’s benchmark rate to its highest point since 2008. The increase will mean higher borrowing costs for many consumers and businesses.

The statement the Fed issued Wednesday after its latest policy meeting said “some” further gradual rate increases are likely. But its updated forecast projects just two rate hikes next year, down from three the Fed had predicted in September.

The new forecast also reduces the long-run level for the Fed’s benchmark rate to 2.8 per cent, down from three per cent.

Markets react

U.S. stocks rapidly surrendered an early surge Wednesday afternoon as investors reacted to the announcement. Stocks had been sharply higher before the Fed announced the rate hike. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 351 points at 23,323 after being up as much as 200 points before the rate announcement. That’s the lowest close for the Dow in more than a year, stretching back to Nov. 15, 2017.

The Fed has raised rates with steady regularity as the U.S. economy has strengthened. Wednesday’s was the Fed’s ninth hike since it began gradually tightening credit three years ago.

But a mix of factors — a global slowdown, a U.S.-China trade war, still-mild inflation, stomach-churning drops in stock prices — has led the Fed to consider slowing its rate hikes in 2019 to avoid weakening the economy too much. It’s now likely to suit its rate policy to the latest economic data — to become more flexible or, in Fed parlance, “data-dependent.”

The Fed has so far managed to telegraph its actions weeks in advance to prepare the financial markets for any shift. But now, the risks of a surprise could rise. Next year, Chairman Jerome Powell will begin holding a news conference after each of the Fed’s eight meetings each year, rather than only quarterly. This will allow him to explain any abrupt policy shifts. But it also raises the risk that the Fed will jolt financial markets by catching them off guard.

Economic barometers

Some analysts say the Fed may want to pause in its credit-tightening to assess how the economy fares in the coming months, given the headwinds it faces.

Contributing to this view was a speech Powell gave last month in which he suggested that rates appear to be just below the level the Fed calls “neutral,” where they’re thought to neither stimulate growth nor impede it. Powell’s comment suggested that the Fed might be poised to slow or halt its rate hikes to avoid weakening the economy.

Powell speaks at a news conference after the announcement. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

For now, most U.S. economic barometers are still showing strength. The unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent, a 49-year low. The economy is thought to have grown close to three per cent this year, its best performance in more than a decade. Consumers, the main driver of the economy, are spending freely.

After the two rates increases that the Fed now envisions for next year, it foresees one final hike by 2020, which would raise it benchmark rate to 3.1 per cent. By 2021, four Fed officials envision reversing course and actually cutting rates to help stimulate the economy.

By lowering the long-run estimate for its key rate from three per cent to 2.8 per cent, the Fed is signalling that it doesn’t need to tighten credit much further to prevent the economy from overheating. Its statement describes the economy as strong. But it did note potential threats by adding language to say it would monitor global developments and assess their impact on the economy.

Growth forecast adjusted lower

In its updated outlook, the Fed lowered its forecast for growth next year to 2.3 per cent from the 2.5 per cent it foresaw three months ago. It predicts two per cent growth in 2020. Those estimates are far below the Trump administration’s insistence that its tax cuts would help accelerate annual growth to 3 per cent in coming years.

Given the still-healthy U.S. economy, the Fed would normally keep gradually raising rates to make sure growth didn’t overheat and ignite inflation. But this time, the risks to the economy seem to be rising. From China to Europe, major economies are weakening. U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade conflict with Beijing could, over time, undermine the world’s two largest economies.

There are also fears that the brisk pace of U.S. growth this year reflected something of a sugar high, with the economy artificially pumped up by tax cuts and a boost in government spending. The benefit of that stimulus will likely fade in 2019, slowing growth to a more modest pace. And as U.S. interest rates have risen, loan-sensitive sectors of the economy, from housing to autos, have begun to weaken.

In addition, the Fed has been gradually shrinking the vast portfolio of Treasury and mortgage bonds it built up after the 2008 financial crisis. This process is thought to have had the effect of putting further upward pressure on borrowing rates for consumers and businesses.

Trump attacks

Economists appear unified in the view that whatever the Fed does, it won’t be influenced by the attacks Trump has made on the central bank and on Powell personally since the stock market began tumbling this fall. In a highly unusual move for a president, Trump has repeatedly and publicly denounced the Fed’s rate increases. At one point, the president called the Fed and its string of rate hikes this year “my biggest threat.”

This week, Trump fired off two tweets objecting to a likely rate hike. In one of them, he called it “incredible” that the Fed would consider raising rates again when “the outside world is blowing up around us.”

Powell, who was Trump’s hand-picked choice to be chairman, has stressed that the Fed will pursue its mandate of managing rates to maximize employment and stabilize prices, regardless of any outside criticism.

The central bank meets next on Jan. 30. Trading in investments known as Federal Reserve futures implies there’s about a 27 per cent chance of a hike that day.

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Ottawa education workers still teaching special-ed students at schools want safety checks

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Some Ottawa educators say they are concerned about the safety of classrooms that remain open in schools for special-education students.

Ontario elementary and secondary students have been sent home to study virtually because of the dangers posed by rising rates of COVID-19. However, special-education classes are still operating at many bricks-and-mortar schools.

The special-education classes include students with physical and developmental disabilities, autism and behaviour problems. Some don’t wear masks and require close physical care.

Two unions representing teachers and educational assistants at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board have sent letters to Ottawa Public Health expressing their concerns.

It’s urgent that public health officials inspect classrooms to assess the safety of the special-ed classes, said a letter from the Ottawa branch of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which also represents the educational assistants who work with special-needs children.

“In the absence of reasons based on medical evidence to keep specialized systems classes open, we are unsure as to the safety of staff and students in these programs,” said the letter signed by president Stephanie Kirkey and other union executives.

The letter said staff agreed that students in specialized classes had difficulty with remote education and benefited most from in-person instruction.

“Our members care deeply about the students they work with and are not only concerned about their own health and safety, but also about that of their students, as they are often unable to abide by COVID safety protocols that include masking, physical distancing and hand hygiene, thus making it more likely that they could transmit the virus to one another,” the letter said.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board has 1,286 elementary and secondary students in special-education classes attending in person at 87 schools, said spokesperson Darcy Knoll.

While final numbers were not available, Knoll said the board believed a large number of the special-education students were back in class on Friday at schools.

In-person classes for other elementary and secondary students are scheduled to resume Jan. 25.

The school boards provide PPE for educators in special-education classes as required, including surgical masks, face shields, gloves and gowns.

Several educators interviewed said they don’t understand why it has been deemed unsafe for students in mainstream classes to attend class, but not special-ed students.

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Ottawa sets record of 210 new COVID-19 cases following lag in data reporting

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Ottawa has now broken its daily record for new COVID-19 cases twice in 2021, with 210 new cases added on Friday amid a lag in data reports from earlier in the week.

The nation’s capital has now seen 10,960 cases of the novel coronavirus.

Ottawa Public Health’s COVID-19 dashboard reports 977 active cases of the virus in Ottawa, a jump of more than 100 over Thursday’s figures.

One additional person has died in relation to COVID-19 in Ottawa, raising the city’s death toll in the pandemic to 395.

The record-setting case count comes a day after Ottawa reported a relatively low increase of 68 cases. Ontario’s COVID-19 system had meanwhile reported 164 new cases on Thursday.

OPH said Thursday that due to a large number of case reports coming in late Wednesday, the local system did not account for a large portion of cases. The health unit said it expects the discrepancy to be filled in the subsequent days.

Taken together, Thursday and Friday’s reports add 278 cases to Ottawa’s total, a daily average of 139 cases.

The new single-day record surpasses a benchmark set this past Sunday, when the city recorded 184 new cases.

Ontario also reported a new record of 4,249 cases on Friday, with roughly 450 of those cases added due to a lag in reporting in Toronto.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 also continues to climb in Ottawa. OPH’s dashboard shows there are currently 24 people in hospital with COVID-19, seven of whom are in the intensive care unit.

Three new coronavirus outbreaks were added to OPH’s dashboard on Friday. One outbreak affects a local shelter where one resident has tested positive for the virus, while the other two are traced to workplaces and private settings in the community.

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Ottawa family dealing with mould issue in apartment grateful for support

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OTTAWA — An Ottawa family, who has been dealing with mould in their south Ottawa apartment, is grateful for the support they have received from the community.

“I would like to say big very mighty, big thank you to everyone,” says Nofisat Adeniyi.

Adeniyi lives with her three sons in a South Keys apartment. Her son Desmond turned to social media on Sunday to seek help for the family, saying they’ve been dealing with mould in their unit and it has taken too long to fix.

“I see my mom go through a struggle everyday; with three kids, it’s not easy,” says 16-year-old Desmond Adeniyi.

He setup a GoFundMe page to help the family raise money to move out. After gaining online attention and the story, which originally aired CTV News Ottawa on Tuesday, they have been able to raise over $30,000.

“Yes! I was surprised, a big surprise!” says Nofisat Adeniyi, “We are free from the mess that we’ve been going through.”

The family was so touched, they decided to pay it forward and donated $5,000 to another family in need, “A lady my son told me about,” says Nofisat Adeniyi.

The recipient wants to remain anonymous, but when she found out from Adeniyi, “She was crying, she has three kids; I remember when I was, I can feel what she’s feeling – because I was once in those shoes.”

CTV News Ottawa did reach out to the property management company for an update on the mould. In a statement on Wednesday, a spokesperson for COGIR Realty wrote:

“We respect the privacy of our residents and are unable to disclose any specific information regarding any of our residents. We can, however, let you know that we are working with the residents and are making every effort to resolve this matter as soon as possible,” said Cogir Real Estate

The giving did not stop at just cash donations. “When I saw the segment, the thing that struck me the most was how easily the situation can be resolved,” says mould removal expert Charlie Leduc with Mold Busters in Ottawa.

Leduc is not involved in the case, but appeared in the original story, and after seeing the mould on TV wanted to help.

“This isn’t something that we typically do, but given the circumstance and given the fact that this has gone on way too long, our company is willing to go in and do this work for free,” said Leduc.

The Adeniyi family may now have some options, and are grateful to the community for the support.

“Yes, It’s great news — you can see me smiling,” says Nofisat.

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