Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Friday the central bank “will be patient” as it weighs future interest rate hikes in light of low inflation, adding that policymakers will also take into account recent stock market volatility.
Powell seemed to deliberately convey a more cautious approach to rate hikes this year than he did during a news conference last month after the Fed raised rates for a fourth time in 2018.
"With muted inflation readings that we've seen coming in, we will be patient as we watch to see how the economy evolves,” Powell said in a discussion with former Fed chairs Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke at the American Economic Association and Allied Social Science Association's annual meeting in Atlanta. The talk was moderated by New York Times reporter Neil Irwin.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average, already up about 400 points after a booming jobs report, leaped another 400 points by early afternoon following Powell’s remarks.
Powell also said he would not resign if asked to do so by President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticized Powell for lifting rates and crimping the faster economic growth Trump has promised. Trump has reportedly discussed the possibility of firing Powell, news that further intensified a market sell-off last month.
A president can dismiss a Fed board member only “for cause,” and it’s unclear if he can remove a Fed chief who could continue to serve on the board. Experts, however, have said such a move would roil markets and jeopardize the Fed’s independence.
While Fed officials have been providing a generally upbeat view of the economy, Powell noted the market has plunged from its early fall peak because of fears of slowing global growth and the Trump administration’s trade fight with China, among other factors.
“We're listening carefully to that, and we’re going to be taking that downside risk into account” as Fed policymakers decide whether to raise interest rates, Powell said Friday.
He seemed to compare the Fed's flexible approach to early 2016, when the central bank forecast four rate hikes that year but wound up hiking just once amid a market sell-off, economic troubles abroad and a drop in oil prices.
"Powell’s message was unmistakable, in our opinion," says economist Michael Feroli of JPMorgan Chase.
Powell also said the Fed would be willing to pause its campaign to shrink the $3.5 trillion portfolio of bonds that it purchased during and after the Great Recession to lower long-term interest rates – presumably if the economy weakened significantly.
“We said we’d be prepared to adjust” the plan “as appropriate to achieve our” objectives of solid economic growth and stable inflation, Powell said. “We wouldn’t hesitate to change it.”
By contrast, at his December news conference, Powell reiterated the Fed’s view that the balance sheet reduction was on autopilot and the Fed was relying on its benchmark short-term interest rate to tweak the economy’s temperature. His remarks further fueled investor concerns that Powell and the Fed were blithely moving forward with a campaign to tap the brakes on the economy despite scant evidence of inflation, market turbulence, slowing global growth and forecasts for weakening activity in the U.S.
Fed officials instead focused on the economy’s recent performance, which has reflected healthy growth and unemployment that has dropped below 4 percent.
Last month, Fed policymakers forecast two rate hikes in 2019, down from its previous estimate of three, but fed fund futures markets were pricing in just one move. Lately, markets have expected none.
The stock market punished the Fed by plummeting further after Powell's December news conference, hurting consumer and business confidence and raising the prospect that the dimmer outlook could itself hurt the economy.
On Friday, Powell seemed to be acknowledging that he and other Fed officials got the message, and markets responded in kind.
"When we get conflicting signals, policy is very much about risk management," Powell said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Powell: Fed 'will be patient' as it mulls more rate hikes, boosting stocks