Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell will tell Congress on Tuesday that the central bank needs to keep hiking its benchmark interest rate to bring inflation under control—a message that won’t go over well with some lawmakers.
Powell is set to appear before the Senate’s banking committee and deliver the Fed’s semi-annual monetary policy report to Congress. The report was released last week, and states that Federal Reserve officials feel “ongoing increases” to the fed funds rate are needed to quell inflation that has proved more stubborn than expected.
Powell could encounter pushback from committee member Senator Elizabeth Warren, a progressive Democrat from Massachusetts who has been critical of the Fed’s campaign of rate hikes. The hikes are intended to slow inflation by cooling the economy, intentionally damaging the red-hot labor market in the process.
“If the Fed keeps pushing these extreme interest rate hikes, they can tip this whole economy off an economic cliff,” Warren said last week, according to a report by Bloomberg.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Fed’s attempt to cool inflation that began surging in 2021 as the economy recovered from pandemic-induced shutdowns. Last March, the central bank shifted from economic-stimulus mode to inflation-fighting mode as it lifted its benchmark interest rate from the near-zero level where it had been since March 2020. It has ratcheted rates up at every opportunity since then, most recently in February, when the Fed bumped the rate up a quarter-point to the 4.5%-4.75% range, its highest since 2007.
The rate hikes have worked, to an extent. Inflation has cooled from the peak it hit in June 2022, when consumer price increases boiled over to a 9.1% annual rate, the highest since 1981. The 6.4% annual inflation posted in January was well down from that, although it’s descending slower than Fed officials have hoped—and is still a long way from the Fed’s target of 2%.
Economic data in February showed higher-than-expected inflation, more consumer spending, and more hirings than economists had predicted, showing that the economy has been resisting the Fed’s tough economic medicine. That’s prompted Fed officials, who had previously seen indications that they were making progress in the inflation fight, to indicate that they plan to crank interest rates higher, and keep them there longer than they had planned.
“Last month we received a barrage of data that has challenged my view in January that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) was making significant progress in moderating economic activity and reducing inflation,” Christopher Waller, a member of the Fed’s policy committee, said in prepared remarks last week.
When Powell delivered the semi-annual report last June, Warren used the occasion to grill him about the impact the rate hikes could have on the economy, and whether they could even attack inflation at its source. Warren noted that much of the upward pressure on inflation came from supply chain problems and the war in Ukraine, which the Fed can’t influence.
“Right now the Fed has no control over the main drivers of rising prices, but the Fed can slow demand by getting a lot of people fired and making families poorer,” she said. “You know what’s worse than high inflation and low unemployment? It’s high inflation and a recession with millions of people out of work.”
Republican lawmakers used the occasion to highlight the damage that inflation was doing to lower-income families, and stress the need to act decisively to bring it under control.