Powell sees inflation cooling, evading ‘difficult situation’

WASHINGTON — Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said today that current high levels of inflation are likely to fade next year and won’t prevent the Fed from pushing toward its goal of full employment.

Powell spoke earlier this week about “tension” between the Fed’s two goals of maximum employment and keeping prices stable. In periods of high unemployment, inflation is typically low, and vice versa. But right now inflation has jumped above the Fed’s 2% target while the unemployment rate remains elevated, at 5.2%.

That can complicate the Fed’s mission, because keeping its benchmark short-term interest rate low — it is currently pegged near zero — can help boost hiring, but it could also allow inflation to worsen.

In comments before the House Financial Services Committee, however, Powell said he believes inflation will decline without higher rates from the Fed raising.

Current inflation “is a function of supply side bottlenecks over which we have no control,” Powell said. “But I would say that we do expect in the first half of next year to see some relief, depending on the bottleneck in question, and inflation should move down.”

The Fed chair also said that “we are far away from full employment, so that gives us an incentive” to keep interest rates low. Lower rates can encourage more borrowing and spending by consumers and businesses and ultimately lift hiring. Last week, Fed officials projected that their first interest hike won’t come until late next year.

Powell has said that if there were indications that inflation could rise to unsustainable levels, the Fed would hike rates to bring it under control.

“We just have to balance the two,” Powell said today. “But I would say our expectation is that inflation will come down and we won’t ultimately face that difficult trade-off of having the two goals in tension.”

Powell’s comments came in response to questions from Republican members of the committee who said that Americans are worried about rising inflation. Prices jumped 4.2% in July compared with a year earlier, according to the Fed’s preferred gauge, the largest increase in three decades.

In response to a question from Rep. Joyce Beatty, Democrat from Ohio, Powell pledged to take diversity into account as the Fed replaces two presidents of regional banks who retired on Monday after financial trades they made last year came under sharp scrutiny.

“I can absolutely guarantee you that we will work hard … to find and give a fair shot to diverse candidates for both of those jobs,” Powell said.