Monday, May 27, 2024

Powell: More rate hikes are likely this year to fight still-high inflation

by BIZ Magazine

WASHINGTON (AP) — With inflation in the United States still excessive, most Federal Reserve officials expect to raise interest rates further this year, Chair Jerome Powell said in prepared testimony to be delivered to a House committee Wednesday.

“Inflation pressures continue to run high, and the process of getting inflation back down to 2% has a long way to go,” Powell said on the first of two days of semi-annual testimony on Capitol Hill.

Even so, the Fed last week kept interest rates unchanged after 10 straight hikes so it could take time to gauge how higher borrowing rates have affected the economy, Powell said.

The contrast between the Fed’s stated concern over still-high inflation and its decision to skip a rate hike has heightened uncertainty about its next moves. The hazier messaging suggests that Powell is seeking to balance competing demands from those Fed officials who want to keep raising rates and others who feel the central bank has done enough.

In his remarks Wednesday, Powell also indicated that the Fed chose to keep its key interest rate steady last week so it could assess the impact of three large bank failures this spring on the banking sector and whether the failures would reduce credit to consumers and businesses and slow the economy.

Most economists have said they believe that a rate hike at the Fed’s next meeting in late July is all but assured. What actions the central bank might take after that remains much less clear. The policymakers indicated last week that they expect to raise rates twice more this year. Yet they might not follow through if economic data suggests that inflation is falling quickly back to their 2% target.

Speaking at a news conference last week, Powell said there were no plans to raise rates at every other meeting or to follow any other particular time frame. Instead, as he reiterated Wednesday, Fed officials will monitor economic data and make their rate decisions “meeting by meeting.”

The central bank’s streak of rate increases have made borrowing for consumers and businesses more expensive across a range of loans, including home and auto loans, credit cards and business borrowing. The goal has been to cool inflation by slowing spending and hiring.

Last year, the Fed jacked up its benchmark rate at a breakneck pace, including by three-quarters of a point on four occasions. Now, with year-over-year inflation having eased from 9.1% a year ago to 4%, Powell has indicated that the Fed wants to move much more slowly.

A slower pace of rate increases, Powell has said, could help the Fed achieve a tricky feat: Weaken the economy enough to tame inflation, without undermining it so much as to cause a deep recession.

Yet on Wednesday, Powell repeated a warning he has often made: Defeating inflation won’t be painless.

“Reducing inflation is likely to require a period of below-trend growth and some softening of labor market conditions,” he said.

“Softer labor market conditions” would include rising layoffs and a higher unemployment rate. Fed officials, though, have said they hope to curb inflation mainly by reducing the number of open jobs rather than through mass layoffs.

Cutting demand for workers would allow employers to slow their wage increases, thereby helping keep a lid on inflation.

Last week, 12 of the 18 Fed’s policymakers indicated that they envision at least two more rate hikes this year, and four predicted one additional increase. Only two officials forecast that the central bank will keep its key rate at its current level of 5.1% through year’s end.

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