Investors wait to hear from Fed Chair Powell at central banking forum

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Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell made his first public appearance of the year on Tuesday, stressing the importance of central bank independence and his commitment to bringing down inflation.

Powell explains why the Fed will not ‘promote a greener economy’

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The painful rate hikes the Fed is implementing to tackle high prices don’t make officials particularly popular, Powell said during a panel discussion at an event hosted by Sweden’s central bank, the Sveriges Riksbank.

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But, they are a necessary measure, he noted: “Price stability is the bedrock of a healthy economy and provides the public with immeasurable benefits over time. But restoring price stability when inflation is high can require measures that are not popular in the short term as we raise interest rates to slow the economy.”

“The absence of direct political control over our decisions allows us to take these necessary measures without considering short-term political factors,” Powell added.

He also highlighted climate change as a prime example of why officials at the Fed “should ‘stick to our knitting’ and not wander off to pursue perceived social benefits that are not tightly linked to our statutory goals and authorities.”

The Fed will not “be a climate policymaker,” he said.

The US central bank recently instituted a voluntary pilot program that calls for the six biggest banks to test their stability under various climate event scenarios. The introduction of the program, which has no penalties associated with it, has led some politicians to accuse the central bank of promoting a political agenda.

“Today, some analysts ask whether incorporating into bank supervision the perceived risks associated with climate change is appropriate, wise, and consistent with our existing mandates,” Powell said Tuesday. “In my view, the Fed does have narrow, but important, responsibilities regarding climate-related financial risks. These responsibilities are tightly linked to our responsibilities for bank supervision. The public reasonably expects supervisors to require that banks understand, and appropriately manage, their material risks, including the financial risks of climate change.”

Powell did not explicitly mention his policy outlook in his speech.

US inflation rates (as measured by the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index) have been steadily falling for the past five months. That has enabled the Fed to start easing back on the size of its historically high rate hikes meant to cool the economy and fight rising prices.

Inflation in the Eurozone, meanwhile, remains at an eye-popping 9.2% — though it eased between November and December. ECB president Christine Lagarde said last month she expects interest rate hikes to rise “significantly further, because inflation remains far too high and is projected to stay above our target for too long.”

“If you compare with the Fed, we have more ground to cover. We have longer to go,” she added.

The Bank of England, meanwhile, has also warned that inflation, still at its highest level since the 1980s, isn’t going anywhere. The BoE’s chief economist Huw Pill said this week that inflation could persist for longer than expected despite recent falls in wholesale energy prices and an economy on the brink of recession.

These three central banks are fighting in different conditions, but they share a similar battle strategy: Keep tightening.

The central bankers defended the importance of independence and credibility for their institutions, which has come under fire as policymakers are accused of having let surging inflation go unchecked for too long.

December meeting minutes from the Fed, released last week, noted that the policymaking committee would “continue to make decisions meeting by meeting,” leaving options open for the size of rate hikes at the next monetary policy decision on February 1.

No policymakers have forecast that it would be appropriate to reduce the bank’s benchmark borrowing rate this year. And while officials welcomed the recent softening in inflation, they stressed that “substantially more evidence” was required for a Fed “pivot.”

Last week’s jobs report further muddied the picture, showing that employment remained strong while wage growth eased.

Thursday’s CPI for December — which will be the new year’s first check on inflation — will also provide helpful clues to investors about whether US price hikes are sufficiently cooling.

Encouraging data could bolster consensus estimates that call for a quarter-percentage point interest rate hike in February, a shift lower from December’s half-point hike and the four prior three-quarter-point hikes.

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