The Commercial Appeal

Powell: ‘No decision’ on Fed’s next move on rates

- Christophe­r Rugaber

WASHINGTON – Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell stressed Wednesday that the central bank’s policymake­rs have yet to decide how large an interest rate hike to impose at its next meeting in two weeks in its drive to defeat high inflation.

“If – and I stress that no decision has been made on this – if the totality of the data were to indicate that faster tightening is warranted, we would be prepared to increase the pace of rate hikes,” Powell said on his second day of semiannual testimony to Congress.

The Fed chair had made a similar comment Tuesday to a Senate panel but had not included the caveat that “no decision has been made.” Some economists and Wall Street traders had interprete­d those remarks as a signal that the Fed would raise its benchmark rate by a substantia­l half-point at its March 21-22 meeting.

As a result, stock prices tumbled Tuesday, and some bond yields rose as markets anticipate­d a faster pace of rate hikes.

When the Fed raises its key shortterm rate, it typically leads to more expensive mortgages, auto loans, credit card lending and business loans. Higher rates can discourage consumers from spending and thereby cool the economy and inflation. But they also raise the risk that the economy will fall into a recession.

Powell’s more nuanced remarks Wednesday appeared to be an effort to quell any assumption that the Fed has already decided to raise rates more aggressive­ly based on a recent string of data that pointed to strong economic growth and still-high inflation.

At its meeting in early February, the

Fed slowed its pace of hikes, boosting its key rate by just a quarter-point, after a half-point increase in December and three-quarters of a point four times before that. Powell’s comments Tuesday appeared to imply that the Fed would return to larger rate hikes at its next meeting March 21-22.

But under questionin­g Wednesday from Rep. Patrick Mchenry, the Republican chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Powell said the Fed would closely scrutinize data on hiring, retail sales and inflation that will be released next week before settling on its next interest rate moves.

“We’re not on a preset path, and we will be guided by the incoming data,” Powell said.

“We have not made any decision about the March meeting.”

Krishna Guha, an analyst at Evercore ISI, an investment bank, said he inferred from Powell’s remarks Wednesday that either a half-point or a quarter-point hike is possible when the Fed next meets in two weeks. But Guha suggested that after January’s strong economic data, the economy would likely have to show signs that it was cooling sharply for the Fed to hike by only a quarter-point.

Though Powell left the door open Wednesday to only a quarter-point hike this month, he reiterated his comments from Tuesday that signaled that the Fed will ultimately raise its key rate higher than it had forecast in December.

“The data we’ve seen so far this year,” he said Wednesday, “suggests that the ultimate level of rates will need to be higher.”

should be thinking that we have the tools to protect the economy from all potential effects” of failing to do so.

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