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Fed chief Jerome H. Powell says inflation, though elevated, probably will moderate

Federal Reserve Board chairman Jerome H. Powell.
Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell testifies on Capitol Hill in June.
(Graeme Jennings / Associated Press)

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell suggested Wednesday that inflation, which has been surging as the recovery strengthens, “will likely remain elevated in coming months” before “moderating.”

At the same time, Powell signaled no imminent change in the Fed’s ultra-low interest rate policies.

In testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, Powell reiterated his long-espoused view that high inflation readings over the last several months have been driven largely by temporary factors, notably supply shortages and rising consumer demand as pandemic-related business restrictions are lifted.

Once such factors normalize, Powell said, inflation should ease. Yet the Fed chair did not repeat in his testimony an assertion he made three weeks ago before another House panel, that inflation would “drop back” to the Fed’s target of 2%.

Amid layoffs and furloughs brought on by the pandemic, executives at some of America’s largest publicly traded companies voluntarily lowered their base salaries. That doesn’t mean they took home less total compensation, a Los Angeles Times analysis shows.

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The Fed has said it will keep its benchmark short-term rate pegged near zero until it believes maximum employment has been reached and annual inflation moderately exceeds 2% for some time. The central bank’s policymakers have said they are prepared to accept inflation above its target to make up for years of below-average inflation.

The Fed chair also said in his testimony that the economy is “still a ways off” from making the “substantial further progress” that the policymakers want to see before they will begin reducing their $120 billion in monthly bond purchases. Those purchases are intended to keep long-term borrowing rates low to encourage borrowing and spending.

Powell added that the Fed might adjust its policies if inflation, or the public’s expectations for inflation, “were moving materially and persistently beyond levels consistent with our goal.” Americans’ expectations for inflation are important because they can become self-fulfilling. If consumers foresee higher prices, they typically demand higher pay in response. Businesses may then further raise prices to compensate for the increased wages.

He testified to the House committee as part of his twice-a-year monetary policy report to Congress. On Thursday, he will testify to the Senate Banking Committee.

U.S. consumers faced a third straight monthly surge in prices, the latest evidence that a rapid reopening of the economy is fueling pent-up spending.

Powell’s remarks coincided with a government report Wednesday that showed wholesale prices — which businesses pay — jumped 7.3% in June from a year earlier, the fastest 12-month gain since 2010.

On Tuesday, in another sign of intensified inflation pressures, the government said U.S. consumer prices surged in June by the most in 13 years. It was the third straight month inflation jumped. Excluding volatile food and energy costs, so-called core inflation rose 4.5% in June, the fastest pace since November 1991.

Much of the consumer price gain was driven by categories that reflected the reopening of the economy and related supply shortages. Used car price increases accounted for about one-third of the jump. Prices for hotel rooms, airline tickets and car rentals also rose substantially.

“The fact that the recent run-up in inflation has been dominated by a few categories should give the Fed leadership continued confidence in their view that it is mostly a transitory increase, a view which the market apparently shares,” Michael Feroli, an economist at JPMorgan Chase, said this week.

The acceleration in prices, which has been building for months, has unsettled financial markets and raised concerns that it could weaken the economic recovery from the pandemic recession.

But some increases could persist. Restaurant prices rose 0.7% in June, the largest monthly rise since 1981, and have increased 4.2% compared with a year earlier. Those price increases probably are intended to offset higher wage and food costs as restaurants scramble to fill jobs.

In his testimony, Powell was upbeat about the economy, with growth on track “to post its fastest rate of increase in decades.” He said hiring had been “robust” but noted there was “still a long way to go,” with the unemployment rate elevated at 5.9%.

At their most recent meeting last month, Fed officials forecast that they might raise their benchmark short-term rate twice by the end of 2023, an earlier time frame than they had previously signaled.


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