Fed’s Powell stays course on raising rates amid stronger economy

Jerome Powell, the new chairman of the Federal Reserve,

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell pledged Tuesday to keep the economy humming without starting a recession.

In his first appearance on Capitol Hill in his new role, Powell told House lawmakers that the Fed “will continue to strike a balance between avoiding an overheated economy” and reaching 2% inflation, the target the Fed considers healthy.

In prepared remarks, he did not spell out any plans to speed up the Fed’s planned interest rate hikes, but he told lawmakers that stronger economic data has increased his confidence. The central bank has penciled in three rate hikes this year and two more in 2019.

“My personal outlook for the economy has strengthened since December,” Powell said at the hearing. He stopped short of forecasting how members of the Federal Open Market Committee would revise their economic forecasts when they meet in three weeks.

“I wouldn’t want to prejudge that new set of projections,” Powell said.

The top U.S. central banker maintained policymakers’ new stance that “further gradual increases” of interest rates will be necessary as the Fed works toward its two objectives, maximum employment and price stability.

Unlike his predecessor, Janet Yellen, who steadily worked to rev up the economy after the 2008 financial crisis, Powell must ensure that the economy doesn’t grow so robustly that inflation takes off.

Economists are watching whether inflation is finally picking up. Unemployment is low, and the job market is tight, so employers will have to pay more to attract and keep workers. That means businesses may have to raise prices.

The Fed’s preferred gauge of inflation stands at 1.5%. But central bankers expect it to “move up” this year. Data show it was already “a little bit higher” by the end of last year.

Fears that higher inflation might force the Fed to raise rates faster than expected helped send stocks plunging earlier this month. Stocks have since recovered most of what they lost, and bond yields, which reflect inflation fears, have dropped.

Powell said many of the challenges that the economy faced in the last few years are now in the background. He said he doesn’t believe the risk of recession is “at all high at this moment.”

The Fed chairman said that “fiscal policy is becoming more stimulative,” although he did not specifically mention the recently enacted Republican tax cuts or the $300 billion spending bill. He said under these conditions, including an expected uptick in inflation, wages will increase at a “faster pace.”

Both the tax cuts and the spending bill will add to the federal deficit. Lawmakers questioned Powell on whether the Fed would have to change its plans and raise interest rates faster to account for the rise in deficit spending.

“Fiscal policy changes can have an effect, changes of this size can have an effect, and that can be seen in the path of policy,” he said. “It’s very hard to say in advance what that would be.”

Powell urged Congress to act fast to address America’s growing debt problem.

“We need to get on a sustainable fiscal path, and the time to be doing that is now,” he said.