US Fed says it will react if headwinds persist

Vice-chairman's remarks suggest cautious approach to rate hikes

WASHINGTON • Federal Reserve vice-chairman Richard Clarida said the US central bank should be ready to adjust monetary policy if headwinds to the economy from financial markets or global growth prove persistent, suggesting caution about moving ahead with interest-rate increases.

"Growth prospects in other economies around the world have moderated somewhat in recent months, and overall financial conditions have tightened materially," he said late on Thursday in New York.

"If these crosswinds are sustained, appropriate forward-looking monetary policy should seek to offset them to keep the economy as close as possible to our dual-mandate objectives of maximum employment and price stability."

The speech reinforces comments by other policymakers this month that the Fed is likely to keep interest rates on hold till at least March following four hikes last year.

Echoing remarks by chairman Jerome Powell earlier in the day, Dr Clarida said the Fed can afford to be patient in determining its monetary stance. And he particularly highlighted the performance of inflation and inflation expectations in that regard.

"Notwithstanding strong economic growth and a low unemployment rate, inflation has surprised to the downside recently, and it is not yet clear that inflation has moved back to 2 per cent on a sustainable basis," Dr Clarida said.

"As I consider what, if any, adjustment to our policy stance is warranted to achieve and sustain our dual-mandate objectives, I will closely monitor the incoming data on inflation expectations as well as actual inflation."

The Fed's favourite inflation gauge, the personal consumption expenditures price index, clocked in at a 1.8 per cent year-over-year rate in November. That is down from 2.4 per cent in July, though part of that deceleration reflects a plunge in oil prices.

Dr Clarida repeated Mr Powell's assertion earlier in the day that monetary policy was not on a preset course. He also made clear that applies to the Fed's approach to its US$4.1 trillion (S$5.5 trillion) balance sheet, which the central bank is currently reducing by a maximum of US$50 billion per month.

"If we find that the ongoing programme of balance sheet normalisation or any other aspect of normalisation no longer promotes the achievement of our dual-mandate goals, we will not hesitate to make changes," Dr Clarida said.

He is the latest US central banker to refine the Fed's monetary message after the hawkish tone of their Dec 19 statement and forecasts for further rate hikes this year roiled financial markets.

The Fed's communications - and a Bloomberg News report that United States President Donald Trump had discussed firing Mr Powell - helped bring on the worst December for stocks since the Great Depression.

Since the meeting, Fed officials have indicated that they are less inclined to keep raising rates than their statement and projections for hikes this year had suggested.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2019, with the headline 'US Fed says it will react if headwinds persist'. Print Edition | Subscribe