Fed Chair Powell Wants Inflation to Cool More

Jerome H. Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve, reiterated on Wednesday that the central bank can take its time before cutting interest rates as inflation fades and economic growth holds up.

The central bank chief also used a speech at Stanford to emphasize the Fed’s independence from politics, a relevant message at a time when election season threatens to pull Fed policy into an uncomfortable limelight.

This year is a big one for the Fed: After long months of rapid inflation, price increases are finally coming down. That means that central bankers may soon be able to lower interest rates from their highest levels in two decades. The Fed raised rates to 5.3 percent from March 2022 to mid-2023 to cool the economy and bring inflation to heel.

Figuring out when and how much to cut interest rates is tricky, though. Inflation has decelerated more slowly in recent months, and the Fed does not want to cut rates too early and fail to fully wrestle price increases under control. Investors had initially expected the Fed to lower rates early this year, but now see the first move coming in June or July as officials wait for more evidence that inflation has truly moderated.

“On inflation, it is too soon to say whether the recent readings represent more than just a bump,” Mr. Powell said. “We do not expect that it will be appropriate to lower our policy rate until we have greater confidence that inflation is moving sustainably down toward 2 percent.”

“Given the strength of the economy and progress on inflation so far, we have time to let the incoming data guide our decisions on policy,” he added. He called reducing inflation a “sometimes bumpy path.”

Fed officials face pressure from all sides as they contemplate their next move. While officials want to make sure that they have fully snuffed out inflation, many economists also warn that keeping rates too high for too long could weigh on the economy more than is necessary and cause job losses.

“There is no risk-free path,” Mr. Powell acknowledged on Wednesday.

Inflation cooled swiftly in 2023 both as global supply chains healed — allowing goods prices to fall — and as prices for a number of services, like rent, stopped climbing so steeply. Services prices tie back in part to wage increases, which have moderated as more workers have joined the labor pool, partly thanks to strong immigration.

“There may be more supply side gains to be had,” Mr. Powell said, noting that the Fed’s policies might also be weighing on demand for big purchases like cars and on the labor market.

As the Fed waits to see what happens, taking time to start with rate cuts means that the Fed’s first rate cut — and any subsequent ones — could come just as campaigning is heating up ahead of the presidential election in November.

Former President Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has already criticized the Fed for being political and said Mr. Powell was “going to do something to probably help the Democrats.” Mr. Trump elevated Mr. Powell to the role of Fed chair, though he has since been reappointed to the role by President Biden.

The Fed is independent of the White House, and its officials often stress that they set policy with an eye on the economy, not politics. Mr. Powell did so on Wednesday, explaining that the Fed is insulated from partisan wrangling and is determined to ignore such pressures.

“We’re just calling balls and strikes on the economy as we see them,” Mr. Powell said. He later added that when the Fed contemplates its policy path, “it doesn’t matter what the election calendar says.”

But the Fed chair also pushed back on calls for the Fed to do more on issues like climate change, a request that often comes from Democrats.

“We also need to avoid ‘mission creep,’” Mr. Powell said, citing climate change as something beyond the scope of the Fed. “Policies to address climate change are the business of elected officials and those agencies that they have charged with this responsibility.”

The Fed, he said, has “a narrow role that relates to our responsibilities as a bank supervisor” but is likely to come under pressure to expand that role, and “we are not, nor do we seek to be, climate policymakers.”

While Mr. Powell was careful to avoid talking about immigration policy, he did note repeatedly that stronger-than-expected immigration has helped the economy to grow more strongly than economists thought that it could, even as inflation has faded.

The Congressional Budget Office this year increased its expectations for U.S. labor force growth and economic growth in light of immigration trends. When more people come into the country and labor force, there is more earning and spending in the economy, and output can expand without overheating the job market.

“Our economy has been short labor, and probably still is,” Mr. Powell said, but immigration “explains what we’ve been asking ourselves, which is, ‘How can the economy have grown over 3 percent in a year where almost every outside economist was forecasting a recession?’”