Fed officials signal March rate hike on track despite Ukraine

Fed officials prior to the Russian invasion had vigorously signaled their readiness to raise interest rates. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - United States Federal Reserve officials stuck to their resolve to raise interest rates next month despite uncertainty posed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with at least one policymaker considering a half-point move.

While acknowledging the risks created by the conflict, which has triggered one of the worst security crises in Europe since World War II and caused oil prices to jump, US central bankers stressed the need to confront the hottest US inflation in 40 years.

"With the economy at full employment and inflation far above target, we should signal that we are moving back to neutral at a fast pace," Fed governor Christopher Waller said in remarks at an event on Thursday (Feb 24).

"A 50-basis point hike would help do that" if data on jobs and prices stay hot in coming weeks, he said.

Fed officials prior to the Russian invasion had vigorously signalled their readiness to raise interest rates when they meet on March 15 and 16 to confront inflation, while keeping their options open on how far or how fast they move following lift-off.

The debate is putting focus on several key moments over the next two weeks: January figures on the Fed's preferred inflation gauge, due on Friday; chair Jerome Powell's semi-annual monetary policy testimony to Congress on March 2 and 3; the February employment report on March 4; and February data on the consumer price index, due on March 10.

Mr Waller, who favored raising rates by 100 basis points by the middle of the year and beginning to shrink the Fed's bloated balance sheet by the central bank's July meeting, said it was "too soon to know how Russia's attack on Ukraine will affect the US economy, and it may not be much easier by the time of our March meeting".

Traders and economists alike still see the Fed kicking off rate hikes in March. Interest-rate futures show a quarter-point increase next month is more than fully priced in.

Cleveland Fed president Loretta Mester said on Thursday that the "implications of the unfolding situation in Ukraine for the medium-run economic outlook in the US will also be a consideration in determining the appropriate pace at which to remove accommodation".

Soaring energy costs could push headline inflation even higher, although the Fed typically also takes into account what that means for household spending. Higher oil prices hitting Americans in the pocketbook could dampen demand.

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1970s oil shock

But lessons from the 1970s oil shock are likely to also weigh on policymakers grappling with high inflation that they worry could become entrenched, and that concern is expected to dominate.

Atlanta Fed president Raphael Bostic said on Thursday that he currently still expects to raise rates in March provided the economy evolves as he anticipates.

"If the numbers come in close to that I think that can we continue with our lift-off plan," he said during the Atlanta Fed's Banking Outlook Conference. "We'll just have to see where things go. I know we have seen over the past several weeks that oil prices have increased dramatically, as have natural gas. That could have ripples."

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Also on Thursday, Richmond Fed chief Thomas Barkin said that "time will tell" whether Ukraine changes the outlook for policy, while affirming his inclination to start normalizing policy to counter price pressures.

Mr Barkin said that US links to the Russian economy and the exposure of US banks to the country appear to be limited, though officials would examine the impact on energy and commodity markets for potential spillovers to the US. He also noted that when Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014 the fallout had been limited.

"So if this evolves like 2014 I don't think you are going to see much change to the underlying logic that I talked about. But this is uncharted territory. So we will have to see where the world goes."

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