Federal Reserve Chair Pledges to Bring Inflation Under Control

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Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, told senators on Thursday that policymakers were prepared to rein in inflation as they tried to fulfill their price stability goal — even if that came at an economic cost.

“We’re going to use our tools, and we’re going to get this done,” Mr. Powell told the Senate Banking Committee.

Mr. Powell has signaled that the Fed is poised to raise interest rates by a quarter percentage point at its meeting that ends March 16, and follow up with additional rate increases over the next several months. Fed officials are also planning to come up with a strategy for shrinking their vast holdings of government-backed debt, which will increase longer-term interest rates.

The suite of policy changes will be an effort to weigh on demand, tamping down price increases that are running at their fastest pace in 40 years. The Fed aims for 2 percent price gains on average over time, but inflation came in at 6.1 percent in the year through January.

Asked if the Fed was prepared to do whatever it took to control inflation — even if that meant temporarily harming the economy, as Paul Volcker did while Fed chair in the early 1980s — Mr. Powell said it was.

“I knew Paul Volcker,” he said during his testimony. “I think he was one of the great public servants of the era — the greatest economic public servant of the era. I hope that history will record that the answer to your question is yes.”

Mr. Volcker’s campaign against double-digit price increases pushed unemployment above 10 percent in the early 1980s, hurting the economy so severely that wages and prices began to slow down.

But central bankers are hoping they can engineer a smoother economic cool-down this time.

They are reacting much faster to high inflation than officials did in the 1960s and 1970s, and data suggests that consumers and businesses, while cognizant of inflation, have not yet come to expect rapid increases year after year. By cooling off demand a little, the Fed’s policies may work together with easing supply chain problems to bring inflation down without tossing people out of jobs.

“Mortgage rates will go up, the rates for car loans — all of those rates that affect consumers’ buying decisions,” Mr. Powell said of the way higher rates would work. “Housing prices won’t go up as much, and equity prices won’t go up as much, so people will spend less.”

The goal is to allow factories and businesses to catch up so shoppers are no longer competing for a limited stock of goods and services, creating shortages that enable companies to raise prices without scaring voracious buyers away.

Inflation F.A.Q.

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What is inflation? Inflation is a loss of purchasing power over time, meaning your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is typically expressed as the annual change in prices for everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, apparel, transportation and toys.

What causes inflation? It can be the result of rising consumer demand. But inflation can also rise and fall based on developments that have little to do with economic conditions, such as limited oil production and supply chain problems.

Is inflation bad? It depends on the circumstances. Fast price increases spell trouble, but moderate price gains can lead to higher wages and job growth.

Can inflation affect the stock market? Rapid inflation typically spells trouble for stocks. Financial assets in general have historically fared badly during inflation booms, while tangible assets like houses have held their value better.

“What we hope to achieve is bringing the economy to a level where supply and demand are in sync,” Mr. Powell said.

Asked whether the nation might be on the cusp of a wage-price spiral, in which wages and inflation feed on each other, Mr. Powell struck a cautious tone.

“That is a serious concern, and one that we monitor carefully,” he said. He noted that wage increases had been very quick — especially for lower-paid workers — and that whether they became problematic would depend on how persistent they proved to be.

“The big thing we don’t want is to have inflation become entrenched and self-perpetuating,” he said. “That’s why we’re moving ahead with our program to raise interest rates and get inflation under control.”

Mr. Powell underlined that the Fed’s plans for policy would be “nimble” in response to uncertainty coming from Ukraine. Economists have said the conflict is likely to push up gas and other commodity prices, further elevating inflation — already, oil prices have shot higher. But at the same time, a combination of higher fuel costs and wavering consumer sentiment could be a drag on economic growth.

But Mr. Powell made clear, repeatedly, that getting price gains back in line was key.

“We need to deliver price stability; we’re not currently doing that,” he later added, calling the central bank “very highly motivated to get the economy back to a place where we have inflation under control, but also a strong economy and a strong labor market.”