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Powell Doubles Down on “Further Gradual” Interest Rate Hikes

Trump and Jerome PowellOn Tuesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell made his first appearance before Congress since being sworn into the role. Remarking on the strengthening U.S. economy, Powell told Congress that “some of the headwinds the U.S. economy faced in previous years have turned into tailwinds.”

“My personal outlook for the economy has strengthened since December,” Powell told the House Financial Services Committee. “We’ve seen continuing strength in the labor market. We’ve seen some data that will in my case add some confidence to my view that inflation is moving up to target. We’ve also seen continued strength around the globe, and we’ve seen fiscal policy become more stimulative.”

Powell downplayed the importance of both increasing government debt and the recent wild swings in the stock market, saying, “We do not see these developments as weighing heavily on the outlook for economic activity, the labor market, and inflation.” Powell said he expected positive consumer sentiment and a strong labor market to help strengthen household incomes and spending. “The economic outlook remains strong,” Powell said.

While Powell did not directly specify whether the Fed will likely implement four interest rate hikes this year, rather than three, he did state that “the upside potential for inflation and the increasing positives for growth suggest the risks are skewed towards a more aggressive monetary policy response.” That would jibe with the increasing chorus of voices who are forecasting four interest rate hikes for 2018.

Powell isn’t the only Fed official who has been vocal on the topic recently. During a speech at the National Association for Business Economics in New York, Federal Reserve Governor Randal Quarles also expressed optimism about the direction of the economy, saying, “it has been quite some time since the economic environment has looked as favorable as it does now."

During a television interview this week, New York Fed President William Dudley said, “As long as I’m comfortable that the economy is going to continue to grow at an above-trend pace at a time that I think monetary policy is accommodative and financial conditions are easy, I’m probably going to be supportive of removing monetary policy accommodation.”

And last week, Dallas Fed President Rob Kaplan said in an essay published on the Dallas Fed’s website that “I continue to believe that gradual and patient removals of accommodation will increase the likelihood of extending the economic expansion in the U.S.”

Roberto Perli, a partner at economic research firm Cornerstone Macro and a former Monetary Policy Economist at the Fed, told the Wall Street Journal, “Overall, the tone of the testimony was definitely NOT hawkish. He was optimistic about the growth prospects of the US economy, especially in the near term—he said clearly that his outlook for the economy has strengthened since December, and that sentence pushed yields significantly higher than they were. Still, nothing of what Powell said suggested that the Fed is about to drastically depart from its very gradual pace of rate hikes."

According to Bloomberg, investors increased the probability of a Fed rate hike in Q4 2018 to about 50 percent following Powell’s remarks to Congress. Odds of increases in Q2 and Q3 increased to around 80 percent and 70 percent, respectively.

You can read Powell’s full written comments to Congress by clicking here. Powell is also scheduled to deliver the "Semiannual Monetary Policy Report" to the Senate Banking Committee at 10 a.m. EST on Thursday, March 1. That hearing will be webcast live here.

About Author: David Wharton

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