Exclusive-Fed's Harker says economy close to achieving inflation goal for rate hikes

(Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Reserve may be close to meeting the inflation mandate set for raising interest rates, Philadelphia Fed Bank President Patrick Harker said, but it may be a year or longer before the central bank’s employment goal is met to allow for an actual rate increase.

FILE PHOTO: The Federal Reserve building is set against a blue sky in Washington, U.S., May 1, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

After running high this year because of the pandemic, inflation is likely to come down closer to the Fed’s 2% target over the next couple of years, Harker said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday.

“We’ll see how it pans out over the next couple of months, but I think we’re pretty close to, or already have, achieved our inflation goal of running, averaging above 2% for a while so we can average over the longer-run 2% inflation,” Harker said.

If the economy continues to improve as expected, it could potentially reach a point as soon as 2023 where the Fed’s mandates for both inflation and maximum employment have been met, he said. His forecast is for the U.S. unemployment rate to drop to about 4% by the end of next year, 3.8% by 2023 and 3.6% by the end of 2024.

“At that point I think the economy should be healthy enough to tolerate some small increases in the Fed funds rate,” said Harker, adding that low interest rates can increase financial stability risks and hurt savers and people on fixed incomes.

But he emphasized that the central bank will not be removing accommodation anytime soon. The Fed will still be adding accommodation even after it starts to reduce its bond purchases from the current pace of $120 billion a month, just at a slower rate, Harker said.

Winding down those asset purchases soon could give the Fed more “optionality” next year for responding to inflation that continues to run above the central bank’s target, Harker said. “That is a risk worth monitoring,” he said, especially if some supply side disruptions take a few years to be resolved.

Harker said earlier this week that he supports tapering the Fed’s asset purchases as soon as November. He also said the central bank could start increasing interest rates in late 2022 or early 2023, based on how the economy is doing.

ETHICS REVIEW ‘APPROPRIATE’

Harker may vote next year as an alternate in the Fed’s monetary policy meetings until a replacement is chosen for Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren, who announced his retirement here earlier this week, as did Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan.

Rosengren cited health reasons for his decision but both he and Kaplan were facing questions about investment trades they made in 2020 while the Fed took actions to stabilize financial markets and the economy.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell ordered a broad review of the central bank’s guidelines and vowed to improve them. He also said this week that the Fed is examining the trading done by regional bank presidents to make sure it was legal and in line with current policies.

Harker said he welcomes the review of the ethics rules, calling it “timely and appropriate.”

Harker said a look at his own investments from last year made him think about whether it may be time to update the rules. Some municipal bonds that he owned for years were called because of the drop in interest rates, meaning he was paid back before the bonds matured.

“In my mind it raised the question ‘should I own municipal bonds going forward?’” said Harker. “This is why I think this is important, I hadn’t thought about that before.”

Powell shared a similar concern after last week’s policy meeting, saying that he asked the ethics office to review his municipal investments to confirm that they did not create a conflict and that he and his wife will not trade on those holdings.

“We serve the American people and the American people need to trust that we are objective and have their best interests at heart,” said Harker, who was tapped to run the Philadelphia Fed in 2015. “That said, if there are things that would bring that into question, including our investments, then we should strengthen those policies.”

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