U.S. Federal Reserve divided over how to respond to fast-rising prices meets this week with the fresh complication of increased coronavirus infections and a global supply chain that, far from sorting out its problems, may be headed for more inflation-inducing trouble.
Fed officials are likely to affirm after their two-day meeting that a strong U.S. recovery and their planning for an eventual policy shift both remain underway. But the new risks, threatening the twin ills of slowed growth and higher prices, mean the rosy future seen in June seems less assured.
Debate over how to shape post-pandemic monetary policy has just begun, and decisions were not expected before the fall.
But since the Fed met just six weeks ago, what had seemed a blue-sky setting for that debate has become clouded by a quadrupling of daily infections led by the more-contagious Delta variant to levels approaching those seen in last summer’s virus surge.
So far, the risks to growth remain just that: Data on air travel and restaurant visits show consumers are still in recovery mode, not hunkering down.
A new policy statement is to be issued Wednesday at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) followed by a press conference by Fed Chair Jerome Powell.
“Again and again we’ve seen over the last 18 months that the No. 1 determinant of economic activity is the virus,” said Karen Dynan, a Harvard University economics professor and former assistant U.S. Treasury Secretary. “I think that we will continue to make forward progress, but that progress will be slower than otherwise.”
Developments since the last meeting “strengthened the case against pulling back on accommodating prematurely,” given the new uncertainty about the recovery and despite higher-than- expected June inflation, Goldman Sachs economist David Mericle wrote.
The Fed continues to buy $120 billion in government bonds each month and hold its policy interest rate near zero, measures rolled out in the spring of 2020 to buttress the economy from the pandemic. Some Fed officials already feel it is time to pivot from those policies because of the unexpected pace of recent price increases, and trading in bond markets in recent weeks showed investors betting the Fed may have to accelerate its exit from the crisis programs.
SUPPLY ISSUES ‘NOT GOING ANYWHERE’
Yet it is, indeed, a long list of new problems that have arisen since June 16, when the Fed expressed confidence the pandemic was fading and that “progress on vaccinations will likely continue to reduce the effects of the public health crisis on the economy.”