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Fed officials tussle over practical meaning of new inflation policy

Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir
·4 mins read
FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: The Federal Reserve on Mayday in Washington

Fed officials tussle over practical meaning of new inflation policy

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: The Federal Reserve on Mayday in Washington

By Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal Reserve policymakers on Friday began fleshing out what their new tolerance for inflation will mean in practice, an issue critical to how investors and households reshape their own outlooks even if it may not be relevant to any immediate decisions by the U.S. central bank.

The new policy, laid out in a strategic document last month and incorporated into a policy statement issued on Wednesday, pledges to keep interest rates near zero until inflation has hit the Fed's 2% target and is on track "to moderately exceed" it "for some time."

As it stands, with the coronavirus pandemic sapping demand, leaving millions of Americans unemployed, and threatening the survival of entire industries, inflation is not seen as the core risk. Economic projections released by the Fed this week show inflation only reaching 2% by the end of 2023, with any shift towards tighter monetary policy likely years down the road.

But how the Fed's new language is interpreted by the central bank's five current Washington-based governors and 12 regional bank presidents will be central to whether bond markets, stock investors and even consumers see the new approach as likely to be effective, and start behaving in a way that actually helps push inflation higher.

After years of weak inflation, that is the Fed's hope. It is based on fears of a Japanese-style low inflation rut that can have its own damaging effects over time, and Fed officials on Friday started to outline their views of how to proceed.

Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic said, for example, that he'd be paying closer attention to how fast inflation rises rather than to its quarter-to-quarter level in implementing the new approach.

In an interview on Bloomberg Television, Bostic said if inflation went up to 2.3% but appeared stable "that would be fine ... By contrast if we were at 2.2 and the next quarter at 2.4 and then at 2.6, that trajectory would give me concern" and perhaps require efforts to cool the economy.

'GHOST STORIES'

Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari, in contrast, laid out a more open-ended view in written comments describing why he dissented against the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee's policy statement on Wednesday.

The Fed, he felt, was setting itself up to make the same mistake it has in the past of reacting too quickly to inflation "ghost stories" and risked nipping off job growth too soon.

He said the Fed instead should switch its focus to core inflation, a slower moving variable that excludes volatile commodity prices, and ensure that it reached 2% on a "sustained basis."

"I would have preferred the Committee make a stronger commitment to not raising rates until we were certain to have achieved our dual mandate objectives," of maximum employment consistent with stable prices, Kashkari said in an essay.

A second dissent from Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan argued the central bank should keep its options open to raise rates sooner if needed - a sign of the broad debate now taking place over just what the new framework will mean in practice.

Critics say they feel the Fed's new approach rings hollow without strong measures to back it up and produce the higher inflation they seek, such as more aggressive bond-buying.

But St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said inflation may move higher on its own if, as he suspects, the economic recovery gains traction at a time when global supply chains are being reorganized, monetary policy is loose, and governments are issuing record levels of debt to finance pandemic-related spending.

"A lot of people on Wall Street are saying 'you could not hit 2%, how are you going to have inflation above 2%?'", Bullard said in webcast remarks to a Washington University in St. Louis forum.

"I think we are at a moment where you may see some inflation ... You have got more relaxed central banks ... You have got huge fiscal deficits which historically have been a catalyst for inflation. And you have possibly bottleneck-type pressures."

(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir; Editing by Paul Simao)