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Fed's Harker sees downward inflation trend as 'transitory'

By Trevor Hunnicutt

(Reuters) - Falling U.S. inflation could prove "transitory," suggesting no reason to change monetary policy yet, a Federal Reserve policymaker said on Monday, adding that an interest rate hike could still be in the cards.

Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker said he is keeping his medium-range inflation forecasts unchanged, backing statements by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell last week that took markets by surprise.

Powell said in a press conference on Wednesday that lower inflation trends could be explained partly by "transitory" factors that might not last, including investment management fees, apparel prices and air fares.

Harker on Monday said he suspects that is true, but Fed policymakers seem divided on the topic.

"If any component of the outlook were to affect my view on the appropriate path of monetary policy, it would be inflation," Harker said in remarks prepared for delivery at an economics conference in Philadelphia. "However, we’re not there yet, and it would take more data to convince me. I therefore continue to see one increase at most this year; possibly one, at most, next."

The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the "core" personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index excluding the volatile food and energy components, slowed to an annual rate of 1.6% in March. The Fed's inflation target is 2%.

Powell's remarks surprised markets that are increasingly positioned for the Fed to cut rates to prevent inflation from stalling and potentially hurting spending and the central bank's ability to respond to recessions.

If the causes for low inflation are temporary, however, the Fed could decide to deliver a rate hike instead.

Fed policymakers appear divided on the question. Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester told Reuters on Friday that she also expects weak inflation to prove transitory.

Two of her colleagues, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans and St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, suggested that same day that lower inflation readings are worrisome and could force a change in direction.

Harker, who does not vote on the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee this year but participates in its deliberations, also said some of the trade-related factors driving U.S. growth in the first quarter could be fading.

On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump said he would ratchet up tariffs on $200 billion worth of imports from China, escalating a trade dispute marked by tit-for-tat duties between Washington and Beijing as ongoing talks were set to continue this week.

Harker said trade tariffs are "not a healthy thing" but that "we do want fair trade."

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)