Jerome Powell, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, speaks during a news conference following a Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Fed Chairman Powell Says Gradual Hikes Likely Needed If Economy Stays Healthy

(Bloomberg) -- Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said the strength of the U.S. economic expansion justifies gradually raising interest rates, paving the way for a hike in September and possibly another this year.

“There is good reason to expect that this strong performance will continue,” Powell said Friday at the Kansas City Fed’s annual policy symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “I believe that this gradual process of normalization remains appropriate.”

U.S. central bankers are carefully raising interest rates to keep inflation in check while at the same time giving the nearly decade-long expansion room to run. The policy has attracted the ire of President Donald Trump, who has complained about Fed tightening.

U.S. stocks rose and the dollar slipped as investors digested Powell’s first speech as Fed chief at Jackson Hole. Yields on the 10-year Treasury note were initially lifted before settling back to levels prior to his remarks.

Powell’s speech discussed at length the challenges of monetary policy at a time when economic benchmarks -- such as estimates of full employment or the neutral policy rate -- are uncertain. The two risks faced by the Federal Open Market Committee are moving too fast and shortening the expansion, or moving too slowly and allowing for overheating and financial excesses, he said.

“I see the current path of gradually raising interest rates as the FOMC’s approach to taking seriously both of these risks,” Powell said. While unemployment is below the committee’s longer-run estimate of a rate that corresponds with non-inflationary use of labor resources, “there does not seem to be an elevated risk of overheating.”

“This is good news, and we believe that this good news results in part from the ongoing normalization process, which has moved the stance of policy gradually,” Powell said. “As the most recent FOMC statement indicates, if the strong growth in income and jobs continues, further gradual increases in the target range for the federal funds rate will likely be appropriate.”

Investors are pricing in another quarter-point increase from the central bank at their meeting next month. That would raise the target range for the benchmark lending rate to 2 percent to 2.25 percent. Odds of a second hike before year-end in December were little changed around 64 percent.

For more news from Jackson Hole:

  • Mester and Bullard give opposing views on the outlook for interest rates
  • New paper says don’t blame lax antitrust for dominant companies
  • Two regional Federal Reserve bank chiefs say they favor further interest-rate increases and Trump criticism wouldn’t influence U.S. central bank policy.
  • Powell’s Speech Title Mirrors 1998 Paper Reflecting Same Debate
  • Fed Staff Paper Warns Officials Not to Ignore Low Unemployment

There is scant evidence that the Fed’s removal of stimulus is hurting growth. Unemployment is low at 3.9 percent, and inflation, according to the Fed’s preferred benchmark, is slightly above officials’ 2 percent target.

To emphasize the Fed’s attention to inflation, Powell borrowed a line that European Central Bank President Mario Draghi used in July 2012 to preserve the euro. “I am confident that the FOMC would resolutely ‘do whatever it takes’ should inflation expectations drift materially up or down or should crisis again threaten,” Powell said in his speech.

Powell, who Trump nominated for the job, is continuing an economic experiment that began under his predecessor Janet Yellen betting that the inflation response from a tight labor market would be muted.

So far, it has been. Various measures of wage growth are rising at annual rates of 2.5 percent to 3 percent and that hasn’t translated into a sharp increase in prices yet.
The tight labor market has produced lots of benefits, which Powell has hailed in previous remarks, saying there’s a “lot to like” about low unemployment.

“Over time, inflation has become much less responsive to changes in resource utilization,” Powell said.

The Fed chairman discussed risk-management strategy at a time when the economy’s structure is changing and uncertain.

“The FOMC has been navigating between the shoals of overheating and premature tightening with only a hazy view of what seem to be shifting navigational guides,” he said. “The need for the sort of risk-management approach that originated in the new-economy era is clearer than ever before.”

Fed officials see near-term risks coming from White House policies, minutes from their July 31-Aug. 1 meeting show. An escalating trade war could put a dent in hiring and investment, while fiscal stimulus could accelerate growth further at a time when the economy is already running hot.

“The economy is strong. Inflation is near our 2 percent objective, and most people who want a job are finding one,” Powell said. “My colleagues and I are carefully monitoring incoming data, and we are setting policy to do what monetary policy can do to support continued growth, a strong labor market, and inflation near 2 percent.”

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