Powell Signals Fed Could Start Removing Economic Support

The Fed chair warned that the Delta variant remained a risk and suggested that a rate increase was not on the table for some time.,

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‘Vigorous but Uneven Recovery,’ Powell Says of the Economy

Speaking virtually at an annual conference, Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said that the economy had made significant gains and that the Fed had made sufficient progress in forestalling inflation.

Seventeen months have passed since the U.S. economy faced the full force of the Covid-19 pandemic. This shock led to an immediate and unprecedented decline as large parts of the economy were shuttered to contain the spread of the disease. Strong policy support has fueled a vigorous but uneven recovery, one that is in many respects historically anomalous. The committee remains steadfast in our oft-expressed commitment to support the economy for as long as is needed to achieve a full recovery. The changes we made last year to our monetary policy framework are well-suited to address today’s challenges. We have said that we would continue our asset purchases at the current pace, until we see substantial further progress toward our maximum employment and price stability goals, measured since last December when we first articulated this guidance. Despite today’s challenges, the economy is on a path to just such a labor market, with high levels of employment and participation, broadly shared wage gains and inflation running close to our price stability goal.

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Speaking virtually at an annual conference, Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said that the economy had made significant gains and that the Fed had made sufficient progress in forestalling inflation.CreditCredit…Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Aug. 27, 2021Updated 5:10 p.m. ET

Eighteen months into the pandemic, Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, has offered the strongest sign yet that the Fed is prepared to soon withdraw one leg of the support it has been providing to the economy as conditions strengthen.

At the same time, Mr. Powell made clear on Friday that interest rate increases remained far away, and that the central bank was monitoring risks posed by the Delta variant of the coronavirus.

The Fed has been trying to bolster economic activity by buying $120 billion in government-backed bonds each month and by leaving its policy interest rate at rock bottom. Officials have been debating when to begin slowing their bond buying, the first step in moving toward a more normal policy setting. They have said they would like to make “substantial further progress” toward stable inflation and full employment before doing so.

Mr. Powell, speaking at a closely watched conference that the Kansas City Fed holds each year, used his remarks to explain that he thinks the Fed has met that test when it comes to inflation and is making “clear progress toward maximum employment.”

As of the Fed’s last meeting, in July, “I was of the view, as were most participants, that if the economy evolved broadly as anticipated, it could be appropriate to start reducing the pace of asset purchases this year,” he said.

But the Fed is navigating a difficult set of economic conditions. Growth has picked up and inflation is rising as consumers, flush with stimulus money, look to spend and companies struggle to meet that demand amid pandemic-related supply disruptions. Yet there are nearly six million fewer jobs than before the pandemic. And the Delta variant could cause consumers and businesses to pull back as it foils return-to-office plans and threatens to shut down schools and child care centers. That could lead to a slower jobs rebound.

Mr. Powell made clear that the Fed wants to avoid overreacting to a recent burst in inflation that it believes will most likely prove temporary, because doing so could leave workers on the sidelines and weaken growth prematurely. While the Fed could start to remove one piece of its support, he emphasized that slowing bond purchases did not indicate that the Fed was prepared to raise rates.

“We have much ground to cover to reach maximum employment, and time will tell whether we have reached 2 percent inflation on a sustainable basis,” he said in his address to the conference, which was held online instead of its usual venue — Jackson Hole in Wyoming — because of the latest coronavirus wave.

The distinction he drew — between bond buying, which keeps financial markets chugging along, and rates, which are the Fed’s more traditional and arguably more powerful tool to keep money cheap and demand strong — sent an important signal that the Fed is going to be careful to let the economy heal more fully before really putting away its monetary tools, economists said.

“He’s trying to reassure, in a time of extraordinary uncertainty,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton. “The takeaway is: We’re not going to snuff out a recovery. We’re not going to snuff it out too early.”

Stocks rose on Friday, with gains picking up steam after Mr. Powell’s comments were released and investors realized that a rate increase was not in sight.

Richard H. Clarida, the Fed’s vice chair, agreed with Mr. Powell’s approach, saying in an interview with CNBC that if the labor market continued to strengthen, “I would also support commencing a reduction in the pace of our purchases later this year.”

Some Fed policymakers have called for the central bank to slow its purchases soon, and move swiftly toward ending them completely.

Raphael Bostic, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, told CNBC on Friday that he supported winding down the purchases “as quickly as possible.”

“Let’s start the taper, and let’s do it quickly,” he said. “Let’s not have this linger.”

James Bullard, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said on Friday that the central bank should finish tapering by the end of the first quarter next year. If inflation starts to moderate then, the country will be in “great shape,” Mr. Bullard told Fox Business.

“If it doesn’t moderate, then I think the Fed is going to have to be more aggressive in 2022,” he said.

Central bankers are trying avoid the mistakes of the last expansion, when they raised interest rates as unemployment dropped to fend off inflation — only to have price gains stagnate at uncomfortably low levels, suggesting that they had pulled back support too early. Mr. Powell ushered in a new policy framework at last year’s Jackson Hole gathering that dictates a more patient approach, one that might guard against a similar overreaction.

But as Mr. Bullard’s comments reflected, officials may have their patience tested as inflation climbs.

The Fed’s preferred price gauge, the personal consumption expenditures index, rose 4.2 percent last month from a year earlier, according to Commerce Department data released on Friday. The increase was higher than the 4.1 percent jump that economists in a Bloomberg survey had projected, and the fastest pace since 1991. That is far above the central bank’s 2 percent target, which it tries to hit on average over time.

“The rapid reopening of the economy has brought a sharp run-up in inflation,” Mr. Powell said.

ImageA shuttered storefront in New York last week. Economists are not sure how much the Delta variant will slow growth, but many are worried that it could cause consumers and businesses to pull back.
A shuttered storefront in New York last week. Economists are not sure how much the Delta variant will slow growth, but many are worried that it could cause consumers and businesses to pull back.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

Policymakers at the Fed are debating how to interpret the current price burst. Because it has come from categories of goods and services that have been affected by the pandemic and supply-chain disruptions, including used cars and airplane tickets, most expect inflation to abate. But some worry that the process will take long enough that consumers’ inflation expectations will move up, prompting workers to demand higher wages and leading to faster price gains in the longer run.

Other officials worry that today’s hot prices are more likely to give way to slower gains once pandemic-related disruptions are resolved — and that long-run trends that have dragged inflation lower for decades, including population aging, will once again bite. They warn that if the Fed overreacts to today’s inflationary burst, it could wind up with permanently weak inflation, much as Japan and Europe have.

White House economists sided with Mr. Powell’s interpretation in a new round of forecasts issued on Friday. In its midsession review of the administration’s budget forecasts, the Office of Management and Budget said it expected the Consumer Price Index inflation rate to hit 4.8 percent for the year. That is more than double the administration’s initial forecast of 2.1 percent.

The forecast was an admission of sorts that prices have jumped higher and that the increase has lingered longer than administration officials initially expected. But they still insist that it will be short-lived and foresee inflation dropping to 2.5 percent in 2022. The White House also revised its forecast of growth for the year, to 7.1 percent from 5.2 percent.

Slow price gains sound like good news to anyone who buys oat milk and eggs, but they can set off a vicious downward cycle. Interest rates include inflation, so when it slows, Fed officials have less room to make money cheap to foster growth during times of trouble. That makes it harder for the economy to recover quickly from downturns, and long periods of weak demand drag prices even lower — creating a cycle of stagnation.

“While the underlying global disinflationary factors are likely to evolve over time, there is little reason to think that they have suddenly reversed or abated,” Mr. Powell said. “It seems more likely that they will continue to weigh on inflation as the pandemic passes into history.”

Mr. Powell offered a detailed explanation of the Fed’s scrutiny of prices, emphasizing that inflation is “so far” coming from a narrow group of goods and services. Officials are keeping an eye on data to make sure prices for durable goods like used cars — which have recently taken off — slow and even fall.

Mr. Powell said the Fed saw “little evidence” of wage increases that might threaten high and lasting inflation. And he pointed out that measures of inflation expectations had not climbed to unwanted levels, but had instead staged a “welcome reversal” of an unhealthy decline.

Still, his remarks carried a tone of watchfulness.

“We would be concerned at signs that inflationary pressures were spreading more broadly through the economy,” he said.

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.

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