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Fed will not raise rates on inflation fears alone, Powell says

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Tuesday reaffirmed the U.S. central bank's intent to encourage a "broad and inclusive" recovery of the job market, and not to raise interest rates too quickly based only on the fear of coming inflation.

"We will not raise interest rates preemptively because we fear the possible onset of inflation. We will wait for evidence of actual inflation or other imbalances," Powell said in a hearing before a U.S. House of Representatives panel.

Recent price increases "don't speak to a broadly tight economy" that would require higher interest rates, Powell said, but come from categories "directly affected by reopening" of the economy.

In setting upcoming monetary policy, the Fed chief also said the central bank would keep its eyes focused on a broad set of labor market statistics, including how different racial and other groups are faring.

"We will not just look at the headline numbers for unemployment," Powell told the members of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. "We will look at all kinds of measures ... That is the most important thing we can do" to ensure the benefits of the recovery are more fully shared.

Lawmakers pressed Powell on how the Fed was balancing rising inflation risks with its promise to ensure the economy recovers all the jobs lost after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We have unstable employment and higher inflation," said Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, referring to the Fed's congressionally-mandated goals of ensuring maximum employment and stable prices. "Something has to give."

Until recently there was little perceived conflict between those goals. But since Powell last appeared before the subcommittee in September, the central bank's outlook for inflation has doubled. Projections released by the Fed last week showed prices in 2021 are expected to increase at a 3.4% rate, compared to the 1.7% projected as of last September.

Recent job growth, meanwhile, has been slower than hoped, with some of Powell's colleagues now openly suggesting the pandemic prompted so many people to retire it may be unrealistic to think the economy can return to the pre-crisis level of employment before the Fed needs to tighten monetary policy.

That's a stance counter to Powell's own focus on returning the economy to the conditions of early 2020, and to that of the subcommittee's influential Democratic chairman, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, who pushed Powell on Tuesday to ensure a fair and equitable jobs recovery that included members of the Black and Hispanic communities.

"There is more work to do," said Clyburn, who has close ties to President Joe Biden.

The economic landscape has shifted dramatically since Powell's last testimony, and at a policy meeting last week Fed officials responded. They projected they may raise interest rates as soon as 2023, perhaps a year earlier than anticipated, and Powell said during a news conference that the central bank was beginning talks about when to pare down its $120 billion in monthly purchases of government bonds and securities used to support the recovery.

(Graphic: Stronger inflation, lower unemployment, )

Reuters Graphic

Powell told reporters the economy "is still a ways off" from the progress in rehiring that the Fed has said it wants to see before making any changes, a cue that the timing of an actual policy shift remains up in the air.

But the change in tone and projections surprised markets, which are now keenly watching to see if the Fed is hedging its job market promises.

‘NOT THE RIGHT BENCHMARK'

Since the June 15-16 policy meeting, the situation has gotten arguably more complicated for the Fed.

Market trading in inflation-protected securities showed investors expected a slower pace of price increases - and a potential loss of faith in the Fed's stated willingness to run a "hot" high-inflation economy to encourage a full job recovery that reaches marginalized workers as well as those better off.

(Graphic: An upended inflation outlook?, )

Reuters Graphic

Some of Powell's colleagues who have spoken publicly since the last Fed meeting have pushed the more "hawkish" approach, suggesting both that inflation risks needed attention, and that the job market was already closer than thought to full employment because of workers who had retired or otherwise left the labor market for good.

Others begun raising concerns the liberal monetary policy may court financial risks if left in place too long.

"The pre-pandemic level of employment is not the right benchmark," St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said on Monday, pointing to research that as many as 2.6 million people retired during the pandemic, accounting for the bulk of the fall in U.S. labor force participation.

Retirements have "changed the calculus about the labor market dramatically," Bullard said.

Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Paul Simao

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