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US economy no longer overheated, Fed's Powell tells Congress

Published 07/09/2024, 06:07 AM
Updated 07/09/2024, 05:57 PM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell delivers remarks during a press conference following the announcement that the Federal Reserve left interest rates unchanged, in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo

By Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. is "no longer an overheated economy" with a job market that has cooled from its pandemic-era extremes and in many ways is back where it was before the health crisis, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in remarks to Congress that suggested the case for interest rate cuts is becoming stronger.

"We are well aware that we now face two-sided risks," and can no longer focus solely on inflation, Powell told the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday. "The labor market appears to be fully back in balance."

Powell told lawmakers that he did not want "to be sending any signals about the timing of any future actions" on interest rates, a stance consistent with the chair's recent efforts to focus attention more on the evolution of economic data - and the possible choices the Fed might make in response - and less on firm guidance about what might happen on what timetable.

Still, with a Nov. 5 presidential election on the horizon and just two scheduled Fed meetings before it, Powell was quizzed by Democrats about the risks to the job market of not cutting rates soon, and by Republicans about the pain to households of inflation that remains above the central bank's 2% target.

"Any move to lower rates before Nov. 5 would be a bad perception," Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, said to Powell, said in remarks that went on to pledge support for central bank independence.

It was one of several moments in the hearing that, explicitly or not, were framed by the presidential vote, the political sensitivity of coming Fed decisions, and suggestions by some close to Republican candidate and former President Donald Trump that the Fed should be brought under tighter political oversight - a counter to widely accepted norms.

Powell throughout the hearing emphasized the importance of Fed independence in rate setting, as well as his own intent to stick with data-based decision-making.

His views on that front, analysts said, seemed to at least edge the door open to a rate cut as soon as September.

"His emphasis has shifted a bit towards a balance of risks within the Fed’s mandate," said Christopher Hodge, chief economist for the U.S. at Natixis in New York. "The Fed needs to get ahead of weakness in the labor market...It appears as if the foundation is being laid for a pivot in September."

Powell's semiannual appearance in the Senate will be followed by a hearing in the House set for Wednesday at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT).

While Powell's opening remarks focused on a review of the economy and monetary policy, questioning from senators keyed in on housing costs and even more so on proposed changes in bank regulations that the Fed is debating internally.

TWO-SIDED RISKS

Powell in his prepared remarks told Senators that inflation had been improving in recent months and that "more good data would strengthen" the case for looser monetary policy.

The Fed has kept its policy rate in the 5.25% to 5.5% range since July of 2023.

His remarks appeared to show increasing faith that inflation will return to the Fed's target, contrasting the lack of progress on inflation in the first months of the year to recent improvement that has helped build confidence that price pressures will continue to diminish.

"After a lack of progress toward our 2% inflation objective in the early part of this year, the most recent monthly readings have shown modest further progress," Powell said in remarks to the Senate Banking Committee. "More good data would strengthen our confidence that inflation is moving sustainably toward 2%."

The Fed receives consumer price information for the month of June on Thursday. The consumer price index did not rise at all in May, and analysts anticipate another weak reading later this week.

A jobs report on Friday showed a still-solid 206,000 jobs added in June, but with a slowing monthly trend and a rising unemployment rate now at 4.1%, something Treasury Secretary and former Fed Chair Janet Yellen on Tuesday said should help ease inflation further.

Powell called the unemployment rate "still low," but also noted that "in light of the progress made both in lowering inflation and in cooling the labor market over the past two years, elevated inflation is not the only risk we face."Leaving monetary policy too tight for too long, "could unduly weaken economic activity and employment," Powell said, undermining a period of economic growth that he said "remains solid" with "robust" private demand, improved overall supply conditions, and a "a pickup in residential investment."

Following Powell's comments investors continued to put a nearly 70% probability on a Fed rate cut in September, something that would likely require changes to the policy statement to be released after the Fed's July 30-31 meeting.

"He's beginning to tee up a rate cut," said Brian Jacobsen, chief economist with Annex Wealth Management in Brookfield Wisconsin. "They view risks in not cutting soon enough."

At the Fed's June 11-12 meeting the median projection of 19 officials was for just a single quarter-point rate cut by the end of the year, but since then inflation data has come in weaker than expected.

The inflation target is set in reference to the Personal Consumption Expenditures price index, which as of May was increasing at a 2.6% year-over-year rate.

© Reuters. U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies before a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on

In a report to Congress released on Friday ahead of Powell's testimony, the Fed noted that there was good reason to believe that price pressures, particularly in the housing market, a significant contributor to inflation's recent persistence, were in decline.

Combined with concerns about the job market, that should "leave the Fed fretting more about the risk of recession than of sticky inflation," economists at Pantheon Macroeconomics wrote after the last jobs report.

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