US inflation risk remains ‘manageable’, Yellen says

Treasury secretary believes world's biggest economy will experience 'temporary movement' in prices

FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2017 file photo, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen speaks during a news conference following the Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington. Yellen, the first woman to head the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury Department, says women seeking to pursue careers in economics face a number of obstacles from the way beginning economics courses are taught to overly aggressive questioning questions in college seminars. “There is a cultural problem in the profession and we need to change the culture,” Yellen said Monday, March 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
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US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said inflation risks remain subdued as the Biden administration pumps $1.9 trillion in pandemic relief into the economy and a return to full employment comes into view.

"Is there a risk of inflation? I think there's a small risk and I think it's manageable," Ms Yellen said on ABC's This Week on Sunday. Some prices that fell last year when the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the US will recover, "but that's a temporary movement in prices", she said.

“I don’t think it’s a significant risk,” Ms Yellen, a former Federal Reserve chair, said. “And if it materialises, we’ll certainly monitor for it but we have tools to address it.”

As attention turns next to President Joe Biden’s pledges to boost infrastructure spending, Ms Yellen said “we haven’t decided yet” whether to pursue the kind of wealth tax supported by a number of progressive senators led by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Campaign pledges made by Mr Biden, including higher tax rates on corporations, capital gains and dividend payments, “are similar in their impact to a wealth tax”, Ms Yellen said.

Mr Biden signed the pandemic relief package into law on Thursday, providing funding for vaccinations and delivering aid to households, businesses and state and local governments.

Ms Yellen and other officials insist the aid – which comes on top of pandemic relief passed by Congress last year – is badly needed for an economy slammed by Covid-19, particularly low-income workers heavily represented in service industries.

While US unemployment remains high, especially when including people who have dropped out of the labour force in the past year, job creation has returned.

Employers added 379,000 new positions in February, more than expected. Applications for US jobless benefits fell by more than forecast last week to the lowest since early November, the Labour Department reported on Thursday.

“I’m hopeful that, if we defeat the pandemic, that we can have the economy back near full employment next year,” Ms Yellen said Sunday. “And I think this is the package we need to do that.”

Republicans have objected to the stimulus package’s size, and even some liberal economists such as former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers have questioned whether its spending is excessive given that the broader economy has been remarkably resilient.

“If you put too much water in the bathtub it starts to overflow,” Mr Summers said during a CNN interview on Sunday about the scale of the stimulus. “We’re trying to pour too much water in.”

While saying her views on fiscal sustainability have shifted in an era of persistently low interest rates, Ms Yellen said “in the longer run, we have to get deficits under control”.

Also speaking on ABC, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that infrastructure measures, the Biden administration’s next big project for the economy, will be “fiscally sound”.

While suggesting revenue measures could include something similar to the Obama administration’s Build America bonds, she declined to confirm that tax increases will be required.

“We’ll see,” Ms Pelosi said. “We’ll look at everything. We’ll look at the tax code, we’ll look at the appropriations process, we’ll look at bonding.”