US Federal Reserve will fight inflation war with 'whatever it takes'

Inflation is running at more than three times the Fed's 2% target and punishing American households

Many factors driving inflation are beyond the Fed's control, such as gummed-up global supply chains and Russia's invasion of Ukraine which has boosted food and energy prices. AFP
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The US Federal Reserve, fresh from its biggest interest rate increase in more than a quarter of a century, indicated on Friday that the rising risk of recession will not stop its battle to bring down searing inflation that is punishing American households.

"The committee's commitment to restoring price stability – which is necessary for sustaining a strong labour market – is unconditional," the Fed said in its twice-yearly monetary policy report to Congress, referring to the US central bank's rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee.

"We're attacking inflation and we're going to do all that we can to get it back down to a more normal level, which for us has got to be 2 per cent," Atlanta Fed president Raphael Bostic told American Public Media's Marketplace radio programme. "We'll do whatever it takes to make that happen."

Three weeks ago, Mr Bostic cautioned against overly rapid rate increases and said the Fed may need to pause tightening in September to assess the economy. On Friday he said he supported this week's hefty rate increase, and that policy needs to be "more muscular".

Inflation, measured by the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index, is running at more than three times the Fed's 2 per cent target. The central bank on Wednesday raised the range for its policy rate by 75 basis points to 1.50 per cent-1.75 per cent and published forecasts showing most policymakers support lifting borrowing costs further this year to perhaps 3.4 per cent, and higher in 2023.

Economists say such sharp increases could spark a recession.

The report's use of the word "unconditional", and Mr Bostic's use of the "whatever it takes" phrase, suggest central bankers are willing to risk a downturn to avoid inflation getting out of control.

"We are with the American people, and trying to make sure that the pain that is experienced, and the discomfort, is as short lived as possible," Mr Bostic said.

Fed chairman Jerome Powell will update US Congress members next week on the Fed's plans to fight 40-year high inflation while pursuing maximum employment, its two sometimes conflicting jobs.

Critics say the Fed has acted too late on inflation. Investors have been unnerved: on Wall Street, the benchmark S&P 500 index fell 5.79 per cent this week, its biggest weekly drop since March 2020.

Speaking in Barcelona on Friday, St Louis Fed president James Bullard said he believes both the Fed and the European Central Bank "have considerable credibility, suggesting that a soft landing is feasible" on both continents.

He said that differed from the 1980s when the Fed's fight against high inflation under former Fed chairman Paul Volcker triggered two recessions.

"The Volcker disinflation was costly, but it was not credible initially – Volcker had to earn credibility," said Mr Bullard.

Minneapolis Fed president Neel Kashkari, in an essay published on the regional bank's website on Friday, said he supported this week's rate decision and could support another similar-sized increase in July. But he added the Fed should be "cautious".

"A prudent strategy might be, after the July meeting, to simply continue with 50-basis-point hikes until inflation is well on its way down to 2 per cent," Mr Kashkari said.

Mr Powell this week said policymakers in July will probably choose between a rate hike of a half-point hike or 75 basis points again.

Traders in futures tied to the Fed's policy rate are pricing in a year-end range of 3.5 per cent to 3.75 per cent, which equates to an average increase of 50 basis points at each of the year's remaining four meetings.

Many factors driving inflation are beyond the Fed's control, such as gummed-up global supply chains and Russia's invasion of Ukraine which has boosted food and energy prices.

The US labour market remains strong, with unemployment at 3.6 per cent. Fed policymakers on Wednesday projected unemployment rising to 4.1 per cent by 2024, as growth slows to 1.9 per cent and inflation falls to 2.2 per cent, a scenario Mr Powell said would be hard to achieve but represents a "softish" landing.

On Friday the New York Fed published results from an economic model showing chances of a hard landing – defined as one quarter over the next 10 where GDP shrinks by at least 1 per cent – are about 80 per cent.

Kansas City Fed president Esther George, who dissented in this week's policy decision, said on Friday she thought a bigger move added to policy uncertainty as the Fed was also beginning to shrink its massive balance sheet.

Still, she said she shares the "strong commitment to bring down inflation to achieve our mandate for long-run price stability".

Updated: June 18, 2022, 8:30 AM