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Powell says ‘no decision’ has been made on speeding up pace of rate hikes

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies Wednesday before the House Committee on Financial Services on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.  (Getty Images)
By Jonnelle Marte Bloomberg News

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell stressed that policymakers had not yet made up their minds on the size of their interest-rate increase later this month and said it would hinge on incoming data on jobs and inflation.

“We have not made any decision about the March meeting,” Powell told the House Financial Services committee on Wednesday during his second day of testimony before Congress.

The Fed chief repeated his message from Tuesday that the U.S. central bank is likely to take rates higher than previously anticipated and that it could move at a faster pace if economic data keeps coming in hot. But on Wednesday he diverged slightly from his prepared remarks to qualify the statement by adding that “no decision” had been made.

“If – and I stress that no decision has been made on this – but if the totality of the data were to indicate that faster tightening is warranted, we’d be prepared to increase the pace of rate hikes,” he said.

“We have some potentially important data coming up,” he said, referencing the latest reading on U.S. job openings, released as the testimony began on Wednesday, as well as February’s employment report due Friday and consumer price data scheduled for release March 14.

Fed officials next meet March 21-22, when they will update quarterly economic forecasts. In December they saw rates peaking around 5.1% this year, according to their median projection.

Investors upped their bets that the central bank could raise interest rates by 50 basis points when it gathers later this month instead of continuing the quarter-point pace from the previous meeting. They also saw the Fed taking rates higher, projecting that the Fed’s policy benchmark will peak at around 5.6% this year, up from 5.5% on Monday.

The Fed began aggressively raising interest rates a year ago, bringing the target on its benchmark rate to a range of 4.5% to 4.75% in February, when they moderated the pace of their actions to a quarter-percentage point increase. That followed a half-point hike in December after four straight jumbo-sized 75 basis point moves.

“Slowing down the pace of rate hikes this year is a way for us to see more of those effects as they come in,” Powell said, referring to the impact of lags in the policy tightening already delivered.

The central bank’s goal is to lessen demand for goods and services to cool price growth, but the U.S. economy has been remarkably resilient to higher rates. Payrolls increased by more than 1 million in the three months through January, and recent consumption and inflation data point to persistent price pressures.

The Fed’s preferred inflation gauges unexpectedly accelerated in January and remains way above the central bank’s 2% target. The personal consumption expenditures price index advanced 5.4% from a year earlier and the core metric was up 4.7%, both marking pickups after several months of declines.

“Inflation is coming down but it’s very high,” Powell said. “Some part of the high inflation that we are experiencing is very likely related to a very tight labor market.”