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MONDAY, October 03, 2022
Fed to start easing support for the markets this month in first major pullback of pandemic era, warns about inflation

Fed to start easing support for the markets this month in first major pullback of pandemic era, warns about inflation

THURSDAY, November 04, 2021

The Federal Reserve will start easing its vast support for financial markets this month, marking a highly anticipated policy change as central bank leaders grapple with major price increases in some parts of the economy but plenty of room to grow in the labor market.

The Fed's announcement, made after its two-day policy meeting on Wednesday, comes as the economy continues to shift more than 18 months after the coronavirus pandemic first hammered U.S. labor and financial markets. The S & P 500 and other stock indexes closed at record highs on Wednesday amid fresh optimism about the economy's direction, but other concerns persist, including inflation, supply chain issues, and a disconnect between many unfilled jobs and unemployed workers.

The virus's delta variant appears to be finally easing, leading to a pickup in hiring. But inflation concerns that the Fed have long labeled as "transitory," or temporary, haven't yet receded. Fed leaders on Wednesday pointed to the persistence of "sizable price increases in some sectors," and Chair Jerome Powell said at a news conference that inflation and the related supply chain issues "will persist well into next year."

The Fed had provided extraordinary support to the economy since the height of the pandemic to help money flow through the economy, limit bankruptcies, and try and stopgap the wave of layoffs that washed across the United States last year.

For months, the Fed had set the stage to start winding down this sprawling bond-buying program - which includes $120 billion a month in asset purchases - in November. Those purchases have helped stimulate the economy and made borrowing easier by holding down long-term rates, and the expectation was that the purchases will be fully drawn down before the Fed raises interest rates. On Wednesday, the Fed announced it would be cutting purchases by $15 billion each month.

That decision reflected optimism within the Fed that the economy is on the right track. But tremendous uncertainty still hangs over the economy, especially when it comes to how long prices will keep rising faster than wages, a phenomenon many Washington policy makers did not expect to last so long. Following the Fed's policy meeting, officials released a statement saying that the mismatch of supply and demand, plus the reopening of the economy, have contributed to high prices.

Powell he said he didn't expect that inflation will have a permanent imprint on the economy, and added that the central bank will use its tools "to make sure that doesn't become a permanent feature of life," especially for households most sensitive to higher prices for groceries, rent, gas and more.

Now that the Fed has started its long-awaited "taper," the markets are hungry for signals about when the Fed will raise interest rates for the first time since the pandemic. But Powell emphasized patience, arguing that the Fed would wait to cool the economy down until as many people as possible have gotten back into jobs first.

"There's still ground to cover to get to maximum employment, and we don't want to stop that when there's good reason to think - although it's been delayed - that the economy will reopen if we do get past significant outbreaks of covid," Powell said.

Wednesday's policy announcement was no surprise: Powell and other Fed leaders have sent strong signals for months that the taper would probably begin in November, if the economy progressed as expected. Still, the shift comes at a precarious time for the economy - and for the central bank, which is charged with keeping prices stable and fostering full employment.

Inflation has climbed higher, and lasted longer, than policymakers within the Fed and Biden administration initially expected. Officials point to persistent supply chain issues that were exacerbated by the delta variant. They say prices won't settle back down closer to the Fed's 2 percent annual target until those backlogs are able to clear. (In September, the Fed's preferred gauge for inflation clocked in at 4.4 percent.)

Meanwhile, the labor market has lagged, with weak job growth in August and September showing how vulnerable the economy still is to covid-19. This week, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen argued that child-care issues and the ongoing pandemic are the main factors holding back the labor market. Still, there are encouraging signs that the economy is poised for an uptick in hiring.

The Fed's main tool to combat inflation is interest rates, which it can raise or lower depending on what is unfolding in the economy. But Fed leaders are hesitant to hike rates - and cool the economy - if that means undercutting job growth.

Only time will tell if Fed leaders get the timing right. The Fed's most recent crop of economic projections showed officials moving up expectations for a rate hike in 2022.

But already, inflation has become a flash point in Washington and the rest of the country. Republicans argue that the Biden administration's vast spending is fueling rising costs and that the Fed will be behind the curve once it decides to raise rates.

Meanwhile, other issues loom over the central bank. Powell's term as chair expires in February, and the White House has not made a decision on whether he will be reappointed or whom it will nominate for a slate of other openings on the Fed board. Powell on Wednesday declined to answer any questions about the renomination process.

"I've been meeting with economic advisers on what the best choices are. We've got a lot of good choices, but I'm not going to speculate now," President Joe Biden said during a Tuesday news conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

Since the Fed's last policy meeting in September, two Fed regional bank presidents also have exited their posts over their stock-trading behavior. That spurred an independent inspector general probe into whether those activities violated ethics rules and the law. The Fed also announced a major tightening of its internal rules overseeing the personal financial activities of top officials. On Wednesday, Powell said he had briefed officials in the Biden administration and on Capitol Hill about the Fed's ethics issues.