Fed Chairman Powell says economic reopening could cause inflation to pick up temporarily

By Jeff Cox

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Thursday that he expects some inflationary pressures in the time ahead but they likely won't be enough to spur the central bank to hike interest rates.

"We expect that as the economy reopens and hopefully picks up, we will see inflation move up through base effects," Powell said during a Wall Street Journal conference. "That could create some upward pressure on prices."

Treasury yields moved higher as Powell spoke. Some investors and economists had been looking for him to address the recent surge in rates, with a possible nod toward adjusting the Fed's asset purchase program.

The Fed currently is buying $120 billion a month in Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities. Recent market chatter has revolved around the central bank potentially implementing a new version of "Operation Twist," in which it sells short-term notes and buys longer-dated bonds.

Powell instead reiterated past statements he has made on inflation in saying that he doesn't expect the move up in prices to be long-lasting or enough to change the Fed from its accommodative monetary policy. He did note that the move up in yields did catch his attention, as have improving economic conditions.

"There's good reason to think that the outlook is becoming more positive at the margins," he said.

The Fed likes inflation to run around 2%, a rate it believes signals a healthy economy and provides some room to cut interest rates during times of crisis. However, the rate has run below that for most of the past decade and inflation has been particularly weak during the pandemic.

With the economy increasingly back on its feet, some price pressures are likely to emerge, said Powell, but he said they likely will be transitory and look higher because of "base effects," or the difference measures against last year's deeply depressed levels just as the Covid-19 crisis began.

Raising interest rates, he added, would require the economy to get back to full employment and inflation to hit a sustainable level above 2%. He doesn't expect either to happen this year.

"There's just a lot of ground to cover before we get to that," he said. Even if the economy sees "transitory increases in inflation … I expect that we will be patient."

The Fed has repeatedly said that it will keep short-term rates anchored near zero and continue is monthly bond-buying program until it sees not only a low unemployment rate but also a jobs recovery that is "inclusive" across income, gender and racial lines.

However, some economist have worried that the Fed's commitment to low rates will foster inflation. Powell said he's "very mindful" of the lessons from runaway inflation from the 1960s and '70s, but believes this situation is different.

"We're very mindful and I think it's a constructive thing for people to point out potential risks. I always want to hear that," he said. "But I do think it's more likely that what happens in the next year or so is going to amount to prices moving up but not staying up and certainly not staying up to the point where they would move inflation expectations materially above 2%."