Powell still expects Fed to lower rates this year as inflation follows a 'bumpy' path down to 2%


Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell doubled down Wednesday on his belief that inflation was on a “bumpy” path down to 2% and that central bank officials expect to lower rates at “some point” this year.

Powell also once again asserted that the Fed would maintain its independence during this red-hot election year, noting that its analysis is free from any “personal or political bias.”

His comments about the inflation marked the second time in the last week that Powell offered assurances that the overall outlook had not changed much despite some hotter-than-expected readings at the start of the year.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies before a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 7, 2024. REUTERS/Tom BrennerFederal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies before a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 7, 2024. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell. REUTERS/Tom Brenner (REUTERS / Reuters)

Such data do not “materially change the overall picture, which continues to be one of solid growth, a strong but rebalancing labor market, and inflation moving down toward 2 percent on a sometimes bumpy path,” Powell said Wednesday in a speech delivered at Stanford University.

A new inflation report released Friday showed a slight cooling in the Personal Consumption Expenditures index, which is the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge. Last Friday Powell said the PCE result was “definitely more along the lines of what we want to see.”

The PCE reading followed stickier inflation data in January and February from other gauges, such as the Consumer Price Index. Those results raised concerns among some market observers about the pace of rate cuts in 2024.

The Fed decided last month to hold interest rates steady and maintain median projections for three rate cuts this year. But nine officials predicted 2 or fewer cuts this year.

The chairman on Wednesday reiterated his prediction for cuts this year, saying “if the economy evolves broadly as we expect, most FOMC participants see it as likely to be appropriate to begin lowering the policy rate at some point this year.”

But at the moment it is “too soon” to determine whether the hot readings on inflation are more than just a “bump,” and reiterated that officials don’t expect to lower rates until they gain more confidence inflation is decisively dropping to 2%.

“Given the strength of the economy and progress on inflation so far, we have time to let the incoming data guide our decisions on policy,” said Powell.

Three other Fed officials in recent weeks — Cleveland Fed president Loretta Mester, San Francisco Fed president Mary Daly and Chicago Fed president Austan Goolsbee — have all said they still see three rate cuts in 2024 while at the same time making it clear the Fed is in no hurry to ease monetary policy.

Mester said Tuesday she wouldn’t rule out a rate cut as early as June. Traders are currently making the same bet, although those odds have wavered amid the hotter inflation data in recent months.

One official, Raphael Bostic, has said he sees just one rate cut in the fourth quarter.

Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Raphael Bostic participates in a panel discussion at the American Economic Association/Allied Social Science Association (ASSA) 2019 meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., January 4, 2019.  REUTERS/Christopher Aluka BerryFederal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Raphael Bostic participates in a panel discussion at the American Economic Association/Allied Social Science Association (ASSA) 2019 meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., January 4, 2019.  REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry

Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta president Raphael Bostic. Photo: REUTERS/Christopher Aluka Berry (REUTERS / Reuters)

Both sides of the aisle are trying to influence Powell and the Fed as the November election draws closer.

Democrats tend to want cuts as soon as possible, while Republicans, by and large, want Powell to take it slow.

Their strategies for driving these points home can be very different but the politicians agree on a key election year dynamic at play: Rate cuts before the election are likely to be helpful to President Joe Biden and the White House — whether or not that is Powell’s intention.

As such, Democratic lawmakers have tended to be blunt in their calls for lower interest rates. Even Biden, who has often avoided any public conversations of monetary policy, dipped his toe in recently by suggesting that the “little outfit that sets interest rates” would bring down rates soon.

“I can’t guarantee it, but I bet you,” he said in March as he discussed different ways to help out homeowners facing high costs.

Most Republicans, meanwhile, have pleaded with Powell to ignore the political noise while making clear they have a preference that the Fed not cut rates “prematurely.” Donald Trump has been even more confrontational, suggesting that Powell wants to “help the Democrats” in the months ahead.

Powell on Wednesday went out of his way to make it clear the Fed’s decisions are not swayed by elections.

“Fed policymakers serve long terms that are not synchronized with election cycles,” said Powell. “This independence both enables and requires us to make our monetary policy decisions without consideration of short-term political matters.”

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