Why the Fed is expected to raise its policy rate above 5% as US job gains surge

With the labour market still tight, there is a need for continuing increases to get monetary policy 'sufficiently restrictive' to engineer a more balanced job market and bring down inflation

The US Federal Reserve building in Washington.  Bloomberg
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The US Federal Reserve is likely to need to increase the benchmark rate above 5 per cent and keep it there to squeeze too-high inflation out of an economy where the labour market remains strong after nearly a year of the most aggressive round of Fed rate rises in 40 years.

That was the betting in financial markets on Friday after the US Labour Department reported employers added more than half a million jobs last month, far more than expected, and the unemployment rate fell to 3.4 per cent the lowest in more than 50 years.

That was also how San Francisco Fed president Mary Daly saw it.

In December, Fed policymakers thought they would likely need to raise rates to at least 5.1 per cent this year to tame inflation, and that projection is still a “good indicator” for where policy is going, Ms Daly told Fox Business Network.

But, she said: “I'm prepared to do more than that, if more is needed.”

For Ms Daly and other Fed policymakers including Fed chairman Jerome Powell, the view is not new, and is especially not surprising in light of what Ms Daly called the “wow” strength of January's job gains.

But for markets, it is a turnaround.

The Fed earlier this week increased its benchmark rate by a quarter-of-a-percentage-point to 4.5 per cent to 4.75 per cent.

In a news conference following the decision, Mr Powell said that with the labour market still tight he expects to need “ongoing” increases to get monetary policy “sufficiently restrictive” to engineer a more balanced job market and bring down inflation.

Interest-rate futures traders, initially sceptical that with a disinflationary trend already under way the Fed would need more than a one further quarter point interest-rate increase in March, moved after Friday's job report to price a further increase in May.

That move would bring the policy rate to the 5 per cent to 5.25 per cent range.

Traders also pushed out their expectations for eventual Fed rate cuts after the jobs report, pricing them to start in November versus in September previously.

Mr Powell has said he does not expect inflation to fall fast enough to allow the Fed to cut rates at all this year.

Friday's Labour Department report did show slower growth in average hourly earnings to a 4.4 per cent pace, from an upwardly revised 4.8 per cent in December.

“While the Fed welcomes any signs of easing wage pressures, the pace of growth in average hourly earnings is still too strong to help lower inflation,” Oxford Economics' Ryan Sweet wrote.

And it is progress on inflation that will drive the Fed's policy decisions ahead, Ms Daly said on Friday. By the Fed's preferred gauge, inflation registered 5 per cent in December, a slowdown from earlier in the year.

But it is too early to say that inflation has peaked, Ms Daly said.

“The direction of policy is for additional tightening and in holding that restrictive stance for some time,” she said.

“We really will have to be in a restrictive stance of policy until we truly understand and believe that inflation will come squarely back down to our 2 per cent target.”

Updated: February 04, 2023, 3:54 PM