Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell delivered a stark warning Friday about the Fed’s determination to fight inflation with more sharp interest rate hikes: It will likely cause pain for Americans in the form of a weaker economy and job losses.
“These are the unfortunate costs of reducing inflation,” Powell said in a high-profile speech at the Fed’s annual economic symposium in Jackson Hole. “But a failure to restore price stability would mean far greater pain.”
The message landed with a thud on Wall Street, sending the Dow Jones Industrial Average down more than 1,000 points for the day.
Investors had been hoping for a signal from Powell that the Fed might soon moderate its rate increases later this year if inflation were to show further signs of easing. But the Fed chair indicated that that time may not be near, and stocks tumbled in response.
Runaway price increases have soured most Americans on the economy, even as the unemployment rate has fallen to a half-century low of 3.5%. It has also created political risks for President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats in this fall’s elections, with Republicans denouncing Biden’s $1.9 trillion financial support package, approved last year, as having fueled inflation.
The Dow Jones average finished down 3% on Friday, its worst day in three months. The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite shed nearly 4%. Shorter-term Treasury yields climbed as traders built up bets for the Fed to stay aggressive with rates.
Some on Wall Street expect the economy to fall into recession later this year or early next year, after which they expect the Fed to reverse itself and reduce rates.
A number of Fed officials, though, have pushed back against that notion. Powell’s remarks suggested that the Fed is aiming to raise its benchmark rate — to about 3.75% to 4% by next year — yet not so high as to tank the economy, in hopes of slowing growth long enough to conquer high inflation.
“The idea they are trying to hammer into the market’s head is that their approach makes a rapid pivot to (rate cuts) unlikely,” said Eric Winograd, an economist at asset manager AllianceBernstein. “They are going to stay tight even when it hurts.”
After raising its key short-term rate by a steep three-quarters of a point at each of its past two meetings — part of the Fed’s fastest series of hikes since the early 1980s — Powell said the Fed might ease up on that pace “at some point,” suggesting that any such slowing isn’t near.
Powell said the size of the Fed’s rate increase at its next meeting in late September — whether one-half or three-quarters of a percentage point — will depend on inflation and jobs data.