Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell will have an opportunity on Wednesday to lay the groundwork for where the central bank is headed when policy makers meet next month—and he’ll likely use it to make the case for slower but steady interest rate hikes.
In a speech Wednesday afternoon at the Brookings Institution, Powell is expected to reinforce the dual message central bank officials have been making for weeks: that the Fed is on track to ease up slightly on its pace of monetary policy tightening, likely slowing to a 50 basis point increase next month after four straight 75 basis point hikes.
But at the same time, Powell will likely note as well the central bank is still focused on reining in inflation and will continue raising interest rates for months to come—and policy makers may ultimately lift rates higher than they had once expected.
“There’s no way he’s going in there tomorrow to shock and awe,” says Claudia Sahm, a former Fed economist and the founder of Sahm Consulting. “This is going to be a really strong signal to 50 [basis points].”
The speech will be one of the last and highest-profile opportunities for the Fed to set the narrative before central bank officials enter their “blackout period” ahead of the Dec. 13-14 policy meeting. It comes just two days before the release of the November jobs report, which will offer the clearest indication yet of whether the Fed’s steps to tighten monetary policy so far have begun to weaken the labor market.
It also comes less than two weeks before the release of November’s consumer price data, which will show whether the central bank is continuing to make progress in its quest to return the economy to price stability.
But the Fed is likely to proceed with its carefully laid out path forward and vote for a half-point rate hike in December regardless of what either of the forthcoming data reports show, economists say. The bigger question will be what comes after that, and Powell’s remarks could offer some insight as to how the central bank is thinking about the months ahead.
Most investors and economists expect the Fed will downshift once again at its first meeting of 2023 in early February to a quarter-point hike, and then pause rates for some time as it waits to see how the economy reacts. But those decisions will depend largely on whether the data show inflation slowing and the labor market holding relatively steady, as the Fed wants to see.
“The key for the Fed now will be to strike a delicate balance. It needs to go slow enough so as to not ‘break something,’” Richard de Chazal, a macro analyst with William Blair, wrote on Tuesday. “But the Fed also still needs to increase rates at a fast enough pace to ensure longer-term inflationary expectations remain well anchored.”
Powell’s remarks are set to begin at 1:30 p.m.
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