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Delicate task for Fed: When to pull back on low-rate support

Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell
Federal Reserve chairman Jerome PowellPool/Photographer: Pool/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — With inflation rising in a fast-rebounding economy, the Federal Reserve is poised this week to discuss when it will take its first steps toward dialing back its ultralow interest rate policies.

It will be a fraught discussion, one likely to occur over several months. Yet the escalating inflation that has forced consumers and businesses to pay more has intensified pressure on the Fed to ensure that rising prices don’t become entrenched in consumers’ outlooks. If Americans start to anticipate higher prices, they might take actions — such as accelerating their purchases before prices rise further — that could send inflation even higher.

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The Fed faces a dilemma: On the one hand, inflation is rising much faster than it had projected earlier this year, though the Fed has characterized the price pressures as “transitory,” a consequence of supply shortages and a fast recovery. On the other hand, hiring has been slower than the benchmark that chairman Jerome Powell mentioned at a news conference after the Fed’s most recent meeting in late April.

Powell said at the time that he would want to see a “string” of hiring reports showing about 1 million added jobs each month. The job market has yet to reach that total in any month this year, though employers have posted a record-high number of open jobs.

With the economic picture still clouded by the chaos of reopening from the recession, no major decisions are expected Wednesday when the Fed’s latest policy meeting ends and Powell holds a news conference. The Fed is set to keep its key short-term rate near zero and to continue buying $120 billion a month in Treasury and mortgage bonds. Those purchases are intended to keep longer-term rates low to encourage borrowing and spending.

But the Fed’s policy making committee appears likely to start discussing the timing and mechanics of gradually reducing its bond purchases. Communicating that decision to the public will be a sensitive task. If the Fed indicates that it will taper its purchases earlier than markets expect, it risks a repeat of the “taper tantrum” in 2013.

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That occurred when then-chairman Ben Bernanke jolted financial markets by suggesting that the Fed could taper its bond purchases “in the next few meetings” — sooner than traders had expected. Bernanke’s remarks sent longer-term bond yields surging.

Having learned from that incident, Powell will likely have any tapering action follow the Fed’s 2017 decision to slowly reduce the bond holdings it had accumulated after the Great Recession. The first hint of that plan emerged six months before a final decision was made. Economists expect a similar timeline now, which suggests that any tapering won’t occur before year’s end.

Last week, the government reported that inflation jumped to 5 percent in May compared with a year earlier — the largest 12-month spike since 2008. The increase was driven partly by a huge rise in used car prices, which have soared as shortages of semiconductors have slowed vehicle production. Auto rental companies have had to buy up used cars to rebuild their fleets, much of which were sold off in the pandemic.

Other inflation drivers have included services, like airline tickets, car rentals, and hotel rooms, for which prices had tumbled at the outset of COVID-19 outbreak and are now regaining prepandemic levels. The reopening of the US economy has also forced up prices for clothing, as more people return to work in person. Such price increases may not last.

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“I think they still feel pretty strongly that what we’re seeing is transitory,’' said Steve Friedman, an economist at investment firm Mackay Shields and a former senior staffer at the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

Another key consideration is whether inflation persists long enough to affect the public’s behavior. If Americans start expecting price increases, those expectations can become self-fulfilling.

So far, bond yields and consumer surveys suggest that while higher inflation is expected in the short term, investors and most of the public expect only modest price gains in the long run. Powell has long maintained that the public’s perceptions of future inflation evolve only slowly.

“The sharp temporary increases in some categories of goods and services seem unlikely to leave an imprint on longer-run inflation behavior,” Lael Brainard, one of six governors on the Fed’s board, said earlier this month.

As a result, the policy makers may begin discussing a tapering of their bond purchases this week. But several more months will likely elapse before a decision is made.

“We have to be thinking ahead, planning ahead, and so I do think it makes sense for us to be thinking through the various options that we may have in the future,” John Williams, president of the New York Fed, said in an interview with Yahoo Finance early this month.

At the same time, Williams, who is seen as close to Powell, said that “to my mind, we’re still quite a ways off from reaching the substantial further progress that we’re really looking for” to start slowing the bond purchases.

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Another challenge is that Fed officials have never defined what “substantial further progress” toward its dual goals of full employment and inflation at or slightly above 2 percent would look like.