Higher inflation, virus risks follow Fed's Powell to Congress

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell begins two days of grilling by U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday with the country facing faster-than-anticipated inflation and a new rise in coronavirus infections, a combination that could pull the Fed’s outlook in opposing directions.

FILE PHOTO: Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell holds a news conference following the Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington, U.S., December 11, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

In sessions that begin at noon before the House Financial Services committee, Powell in opening remarks and in answer to questions by lawmakers will have to resolve a tension that has emerged just in the four weeks since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June: Whether the spread of the coronavirus Delta variant or inflation poses the greater risk both to the economic recovery and to the Fed’s response to it.

The Fed’s June meeting saw officials begin a move towards post-pandemic policy, with some of them poised to tighten financial conditions sooner to ensure inflation remains contained. Renewed coronavirus risks, if they materialize, could push the Fed in the other direction of keeping support for the recovery in place longer in case household and business spending wanes amid new infections.

Falling Treasury bond yields have indicated concern among investors about slowing U.S. growth, even as new data on prices this week showed consumers paying appreciably more for goods and services from appliances to fabric, beef and rent.

Graphic: Yields, long-run inflation outlook dip:

Powell’s view of inflation is likely to be a central focus among House members on Wednesday and Senate Banking Committee members on Thursday, all of them likely hearing from constituents about those rising bills.

In a report to Congress last week the Fed said that as the “extraordinary circumstances” of the reopening subside, “supply and demand should become better aligned, and inflation is widely expected to move down.”

Each month that inflation remains elevated, however, makes it harder for Powell and the Fed to stick to that conviction. Some analysts feel the moment has already passed.

Though the Fed wants inflation to run above its 2% target for a while to offset years of weak pricing, “there is a threshold for their tolerance,” said Ambrose Crofton, a global market strategist with J.P. Morgan Asset Management in London. “The consistent upside inflation surprises of recent months suggest that it is no longer appropriate for the Fed to have its foot firmly on the accelerator.”

The “accelerator” includes $120 billion in monthly bond purchases as well as a target short-term interest rate pinned near zero. Rates are likely to remain unchanged perhaps into 2023 or longer. Discussion already has begun on when to reduce the bond purchases.

RISING DELTA

That could be complicated by recent developments.

The Fed has said it will not reduce its bondbuying until it has seen substantial further progress in regaining the roughly 7.5 million jobs still missing since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 – a threshold policymakers feel they are likely to meet later this year.

That hinges, however, on continued reopening, recovery in the travel, leisure and other “social” industries devastated by the health crisis, and willingness of currently unemployed or homebound individuals to fill the record number of jobs on offer.

When Powell last spoke about the economy at his post-meeting press conference on June 16, daily coronavirus infections were heading to their recent low, and the Fed dropped language from its policy statement that the pandemic “continues to weigh on the economy.”

Since then the Delta variant has pushed the 7-day moving average of cases from 11,000 to back above 15,000, with health officials concerned about the spread in parts of the country where vaccination rates are low. The numbers are more ominous globally.

If that continues, said ISI Evercore Vice Chairman Krishna Guha, it could leave the Fed saddled with “sickflation,” as individuals stay out of the labor market in greater numbers than expected amid renewed virus spread, but supply chain problems, rising wages for the workers who are in jobs, and other issues keep inflation high.

“We expect Powell will strike a careful tone, reiterate that the Fed expects strong growth but underscore that the pandemic still drives the economy,” he wrote.

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