Incoming Fed chair faces early test of policy view

Mr Jerome Powell, seen here at the White House in Washington last month, has been clear he sees little risk of inflation that would prompt the Fed to raise rates faster than expected.
Mr Jerome Powell, seen here at the White House in Washington last month, has been clear he sees little risk of inflation that would prompt the Fed to raise rates faster than expected.PHOTO: REUTERS

Trump-nominated Jerome Powell is seen to let expected tax cut run its course

WASHINGTON • Incoming Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell, chosen by US President Donald Trump to keep the recovery humming, appears set to let an expected trillion-dollar tax cut run its course through the economy as weak wage growth and inflation buttress his view that the economy remains underpowered.

Mr Powell in statements throughout the year, culminating with his recent Senate confirmation hearing, has been clear he sees little risk of inflation that would prompt the Fed to raise rates faster than expected, and takes weak wage growth as a sign that sidelined workers remain to be drawn into jobs.

New data added evidence to that view on Friday. Employment in November grew faster than expected, but wage growth remained muted. The share of working age adults with jobs continued a steady, six-year recovery that is approaching its pre-crisis peak.

Even with the unemployment rate at a 17-year low of 4.1 per cent, "there's no sense of an overheating economy or a particularly tight labour market", Mr Powell told members of the Senate Banking Committee, saying that the Fed should raise rates only gradually.

Debate among Mr Powell's colleagues, meanwhile, has highlighted other risks if the Fed speeds its pace of rate increases.

Some policymakers feel the central bank has already undercut its credibility by raising interest rates while inflation remains so weak. Others have noted that if the Fed continues raising short-term rates while long-term rates remain stalled, it could turn the shape of the bond yield curve upside down, a typical signal of recession.

"If the Fed gets its paradigm wrong and sees inflation that ultimately doesn't materialise, and they take rates too far, then markets would feel aggrieved," said Mr Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at Northern Trust in Chicago, a former senior risk official on the Fed Board.

Other analysts are starting to see a potential dovish surprise when Mr Powell takes over in February, the tax cuts could kick in, and the Fed stands aside. With a background as an investment banker rather than as an economist rooted in a particular analytical framework, Mr Powell will lead "a more data-driven Fed, which at the current juncture means a more dovish Fed", until and if inflation recovers, said Mr Robin Brooks, chief economist at Institute of International Finance.

He expects the Fed under Mr Powell to raise rates only twice next year.

Policymakers will give an initial reading on the impact of the Republican tax plan when they meet next week. They are expected to raise interest rates for the third time this year. They will also update their economic and interest rate projections for 2018 and beyond, the first such forecasts since the outlines of the tax overhaul became clear.

Top Republicans from the House and the Senate are rushing to complete negotiations to push the tax plan into law.

Though Dr Janet Yellen remains Fed chair until February, her final scheduled press conference tomorrow afternoon will set the policy backdrop Mr Powell inherits.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2017, with the headline 'Incoming Fed chair faces early test of policy view'. Print Edition | Subscribe