The Fed wants more good readings before cutting rates

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Friday reiterated a message he has sounded in recent weeks: While the Fed expects to cut interest rates this year, it won’t be ready to do so until it sees “more good inflation readings” and is more confident that annual price increases are falling toward its 2 per cent target. Speaking at a conference at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Powell said he still expected “inflation to come down on a sometimes bumpy path to 2 per cent”.

But the central bank’s policymakers, he said, need to see further evidence before they would cut rates for the first time since inflation shot to a four-decade peak two years ago.

The Fed responded to that bout of inflation by aggressively raising its benchmark rate beginning in March 2022. Eventually, it would raise its key rate 11 times to a 23-year high of around 5.4 per cent.

The resulting higher borrowing costs helped bring inflation down – from a peak of 9.1 per cent in June 2022 to 3.2 per cent last month. But year-over-year price increases still remain above the Fed’s 2 per cent target.

Forecasters had expected higher rates to send the United States tumbling into recession. Instead, the economy just kept growing – expanding at an annual rate of 2 per cent or more for six straight quarters.

The job market, too, has remained strong. The unemployment rate has come in below 4 per cent for more than two years, longest such streak since the 1960s.

The combination of sturdy growth and decelerating inflation has raised hopes that the Fed is engineering a “soft landing” – taming inflation without causing a recession. The central bank has signalled that it expects to reverse policy and cut rates three times this year.

But the economy’s strength, Powell said, means the Fed isn’t under pressure to cut rates and can wait to see how the inflation numbers come in.

Asked by the moderator of Friday’s discussion, Kai Ryssdal of public radio’s “Marketplace” programme, if he would ever be ready to declare victory over inflation, Powell demurred:

“We’ll jinx it,” he said. “I’m a superstitious person.”

Roy Walsh

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