Even though it came on the same day U.S. President Joe Biden was announcing another $1.8 trillion in spending, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell rejected worries that a multitrillion-dollar injection of cash into the economy would spur a new round of inflation.
While offering what could be read as a warning for Canada on the economic dangers of a house price meltdown, the world's most influential central banker decided not to follow the Bank of Canada's lead on reducing monetary stimulus — although some have suggested that he should have.
Last year, as the U.S. economy began to pull out of the depths of the pandemic recession, Powell famously said he was not even "thinking about thinking about" raising interest rates, and at Wednesday's news conference, the first question from reporters was a demand to know whether that had changed. Was now the time to at least talk about talking about it?
Powell's response was definitive.
"No, it is not time yet," he told reporters at the virtual news conference. "We've said we would let the public know when it was time to have that conversation, and we said we'd do that well in advance of any actual decision to taper our asset purchases."
Stimulus must end, but when?
That flies in the face of high-level advice that the Fed should begin showing markets — as Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem did last week — and that the current level of extraordinary stimulus must come to an end sooner than many have expected.
A growing number of commentators and a growing number of reports in the financial press suggest that a surge of spending flowing into the hands of poorer Americans, a mass of savings by consumers, plus the lowest interest rates in history could help send prices soaring before the world's central banks could slow down inflation.
"The Fed should seriously consider following the Bank of Canada's example by initiating a gradual and careful retreat," wrote Mohamed A. El-Erian, chief economic adviser at financial services giant Allianz, in a Bloomberg commentary before Powell spoke.
"The longer it takes to do so, the harder it will be to pull off an eventual normalization without risking both significant market volatility and damaging what should and must be a durable and inclusive economic recovery."
El-Erian is not the only one to have warned Powell to take action sooner rather than later. Lawrence Summers, a well-known U.S. economist and adviser to Bill Clinton when he was president, has worried publicly that the economy could be heading into a period of inflationary turmoil similar to the 1970s, when interest rates approached 20 per cent as central bankers hiked them repeatedly in an effort to get wage and price inflation under control.
"As I look at $3 trillion of stimulus, $2 trillion of savings overhang, a major acceleration coming from COVID in the rear-view mirror, rates expected by the Federal Reserve to be at zero for three years even in a booming economy, record growth this year, major expansion of the Fed balance sheet and much new fiscal stimulus to come, I'm worried," Summers said last month.
One of the worries expressed at the Powell news conference referred to the well-known lag between the time a central bank begins to raise rates and the impact on prices. In the past, research by the Bank of England has suggested that the lag could be as long as two years before hikes take full effect.
The cost of avoiding a tantrum
But as El-Erian explained, one reason not to taper right now is a fear by some of the destabilizing impact of withdrawing stimulus just as Biden is struggling to get the economy back on track. It might be an attempt to prevent a replay of the so-called taper tantrum in 2013, when a Powell predecessor, Ben Bernanke, tried to reduce bond purchases — leading to howls of outrage as bond prices fell and yields rose.
Powell seemed more careful than usual in responding to questions, often flipping through a book of notes to pre-written answers rather than speaking off the cuff. Even though he stated clearly that the central bank would have to sell off its stock of bonds eventually, he put no end point on stimulus. That said, he made no specific reference to holding rates near zero until 2024, something he said as recently as March.
One comment Powell made will be close to the hearts of Canadians worried about the state of this country's soaring property markets. Asked about housing in the U.S., he said that while a sharp rise in prices was not an "unalloyed good," the bank would be watching carefully even if it was no immediate cause for concern. However, that might not be the same everywhere.
"So many of the financial crack-ups in all … Western countries that have happened in the last 30 years have been around housing," he said.
Powell said that while the bank would be willing to allow short-term inflation to climb higher than usual until the U.S. economy was back on track, the Federal Reserve would be willing to use the tools at its disposal — tools that include higher interest rates — to keep long-term inflation at two per cent.
The concern expressed by critics like Summers is whether the Fed will be forced to hike rates more sharply than would be good for a still-recovering economy if rising prices turn out not to be as transitory as Powell hopes.
Folllow Don Pittis on Twitter @don_pittis
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.
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