Fed Chair Jerome Powell reaffirmed Wednesday that the central bank is still chasing an elusive soft landing, even as he acknowledged that executing a tightening campaign without triggering a widespread downturn is not the baseline expectation but rather a “plausible outcome."
"A soft landing is a primary objective," Powell said during Wednesday's Fed policy press conference. "That's what we've been trying to achieve for all this time."
A soft landing is generally understood as a successful tightening cycle where the Fed raises rates just enough to slow the economy and cool inflation without slowing it too much to force a recession. Such economic feats are considered improbable. And policymakers and economists have described Powell's aim as taking a narrow and delicate path. So far the Fed has successfully walked that tightrope. But the market recoiled when Powell noted that he did not see the soft landing as the baseline case.
"Ultimately this may be decided by factors that are outside our control," he said, adding that "I wouldn't want to handicap the likelihood of it, though. It's not up to me to do that."
For market watchers and the broader public, achieving a soft landing carries enormous importance because it will spell the difference between a recession and economic vitality. But actually pulling one off, as the metaphor implies, is an unlikely endeavor.
Powell's remarks on the potential of a soft landing highlight the risks of purposefully setting out to hinder the economy for the sake of bringing inflation under control. Any signs that show the economy deviating from a soft landing, or a loss of confidence in one, would trigger further uncertainty and pessimism.
The concept itself does not have a hard definition. And historical studies of past Fed tightening cycles reveal that soft landings require a rare combination of just-so "Goldilocks" conditions and a good deal of luck showered on central bankers.
Stocks ended the day in the red following Powell's remarks. The S&P 500 (^GSPC) dropped 0.9% while the Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI) lost 0.22%. Meanwhile the Nasdaq Composite (^IXIC) shed 1.5%.
Powell reiterated that the Fed's ultimate aim is to get price increases under control. "The worst thing we can do is fail to restore price stability because the record is clear on that. If you don’t restore price stability inflation comes back and you can have a long period where the economy is just very uncertain," he said.
Hamza Shaban is a reporter for Yahoo Finance covering markets and the economy. Follow Hamza on Twitter @hshaban.