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Powell's 'unconditional' inflation battle raises recession alarms on Wall Street

·Anchor/Reporter
·3-min read
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Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is doubling down on his commitment to tame inflation, telling Congress that U.S. economic conditions are “very far” from the central bank’s targets.

“It’s unconditional, our commitment,” Powell told the House Financial Services Committee on Thursday.

Powell’s remarks suggest the Fed is willing to tolerate a slowdown in the economy if that’s what it takes to lower the pace of inflation.

Analysts at Evercore ISI wrote Thursday that Powell's use of the word “unconditional” is significant.

“[I]t implies a willingness to accept higher unemployment to restore price stability and in the limit case to accept a recession and big increase in unemployment if this is the only way to bring inflation back down to tolerable levels,” the firm wrote in a note to clients.

The note added that the comparably "hawkish" tone points to the likelihood of rate hikes in large increments, which risks "oversteering and causing recession."

U.S. Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, U.S., June 23, 2022. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert
U.S. Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, U.S., June 23, 2022. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

Fed officials insist that the Fed can slow economic activity moderately enough to lower inflation without tipping the economy into recession, but now appear to be accepting the possibility.

“We could have a couple of negative quarters" of economic growth, Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker told Yahoo Finance in an interview Wednesday.

But a larger-than-originally-expected rate increase last week is fueling concerns among some commentators that the central bank is already at risk of pushing the U.S. economy into one anyway.

“I do worry that the probability of a soft landing, which means you bring down inflation without unduly hurting growth and employment, has declined significantly because of a series of Federal Reserve mistakes,” economist Mohamed A. El-Erian told Yahoo Finance Thursday, arguing the central bank started raising rates too late.

The word first appeared in a report that the Fed submitted to Congress last week, ahead of the Fed chairman’s testimony.

“The Committee's commitment to restoring price stability—which is necessary for sustaining a strong labor market—is unconditional,” the report reads.

But Powell notably did not mention the word in his testimony to the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday.

All eyes on July

The Fed has already raised interest rates by 1.50% this year, as the central bank attempts to dampen economic activity by making borrowing costs more expensive. The central bank’s June move to raise by 0.75% was already the largest single move since 1994.

Fed officials have messaged that further rate hikes will be needed, although Powell messaged last week that a 1.00% move was unlikely for the next policy-setting meeting in July. The debate, he said, would instead be between 0.50% and 0.75% interest rate increases.

Fed officials are already starting to stake their positions, with Fed Governor Miki Bowman saying Thursday that a 0.75% move “will be appropriate” for the July meeting.

But Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker told Yahoo Finance Wednesday that he is already seeing signs of demand “starting to soften,” adding that further softening would allow the Fed to go with a comparably smaller 0.50% move.

As of Thursday afternoon, Fed funds futures — the betting markets for rate moves — were pricing in a 96% chance of a 0.75% move at the conclusion of the Fed’s next meeting on July 27.

Seth Carpenter, Global Chief Economist at Morgan Stanley, said it will be "challenging" for the Fed to avoid hiking rates into a recession.

"If you think they're getting criticism now for inflation being high, you can only imagine the criticism they'll receive if they in fact induce a recession," Carpenter told Yahoo Finance on Wednesday.

Brian Cheung is a reporter covering the Fed, economics, and banking for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @bcheungz.

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