Powell says Fed to move 'carefully' on interest rates with risks 'more balanced'

BY Reuters | ECONOMIC | 12/01/23 11:00 AM EST

ATLANTA, Dec 1 (Reuters) - The risks of the Federal Reserve moving too far with interest rate hikes, and slowing the economy more than necessary, have become "more balanced" with those of not moving high enough to control inflation, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said on Friday in remarks reaffirming the U.S. central bank's intent to be cautious in its upcoming monetary policy decisions.

Noting that a key measure of inflation averaged 2.5% over the six months ending in October, near the Fed's 2% target, Powell said it was clear that U.S. monetary policy was slowing the economy as expected with a benchmark overnight interest rate "well into restrictive territory."

"The full effects of our tightening have likely not yet been felt. The forcefulness of our response to inflation also helped maintain the Fed's hard-won credibility, ensuring that the public's expectations of future inflation remain well-anchored," Powell said in remarks prepared for delivery at Spelman College in Atlanta. "Having come so far so quickly, the (Federal Open Market Committee) is moving forward carefully, as the risks of under- and over-tightening are becoming more balanced."

Powell reiterated, as his colleagues have in recent weeks, that it was still too early to declare the Fed's inflation fight finished, with prices rising 3.0% annually by the measure the central bank uses to set its target. Prices as of October were up 3.5% when stripped of food and energy costs, a measure the Fed sees as a better guide of inflation's trend.

"We are prepared to tighten policy further if it becomes appropriate to do so," he said.

But his remarks also reflected increased confidence that the current 5.25%-5.50% policy rate may well be adequate to complete the job. The Fed meets on Dec. 12-13 and is expected to leave its benchmark rate unchanged for the third meeting in a row.

Powell is scheduled to field questions after his speech in a conversation with Spelman College President Helene Gayle, and will be joined by Fed Governor Lisa Cook, who earned her bachelor's degree at the historically black institution, in an afternoon roundtable discussion with local entrepreneurs.

'SOFT LANDING'

The Fed chief said policymakers still regard the uncertainty in the economic outlook to be "unusually elevated," one factor in their insistence that rates may still need to rise.

But he also said that the broad outlines of the hoped-for "soft landing" seemed to be falling into place, with the job market still strong even as growth in spending and output slows and price pressures abate.

"My colleagues and I anticipate that growth in spending and output will slow over the next year, as the effects of the pandemic and the reopening fade and as restrictive monetary policy weighs on aggregate demand," Powell said.

"The pace at which the economy is creating new jobs remains strong, and has been slowing toward a more sustainable level ... Wage growth remains high, but has been gradually moving toward levels that would be more consistent with 2% price inflation over time, and real wages are growing again as inflation declines," he said.

Shortly before Powell delivered his remarks, a key reading on the health of the U.S. manufacturing sector showed activity there remained subdued and factory employment declined. The Institute for Supply Management's Purchasing Managers Index has now indicated the sector has been in contraction for 13 straight months, the longest such run in more than two decades, as demand for goods continues to soften. (Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Paul Simao)

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