Fed's Powell in spotlight as markets await taper plans

US Fed's Powell in spotlight as markets await taper plans

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell. Credit: Reuters Photo

With the US economy recovered from the worst of the pandemic crisis, there is much anticipation in global financial markets around Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell's speech on Friday to see if he will detail plans to roll back the central bank's massive stimulus measures.

But concerns about the impact of the fast-spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus on the economy could make expectations of an announcement at the annual Jackson Hole central banking symposium premature.

"Powell's speech is not likely to provide any breaking insights," said veteran Fed-watcher Mickey Levy of Berenberg Capital Markets.

When Covid-19 transformed the world's largest economy last year, the Fed jumped into action to prevent a major recession, slashing interest rates to zero in March 2020 and buying huge amounts of Treasury debt and agency mortgage-backed securities to provide liquidity to the financial system.

Those programs likely saved the United States from a worse downturn, but were never meant to be permanent.

The Fed has said it will slow the pace of its massive bond buying program then raise the benchmark lending rate -- though no action on the latter is anticipated anytime soon, potentially for years, while the former is viewed as a delicate task.

"It is most likely that Powell's speech will stick to the Fed's recent script of tip-toeing toward tapering and disassociating the unwinding of its asset purchases from the eventual liftoff of rates," Levy said in an analysis.

Widespread vaccinations have allowed businesses across the United States to reopen fully, which has restored millions of jobs and brought the unemployment rate down to 5.4 percent last month, much closer to the pre-pandemic level of 3.5 percent.

But labor shortages and shipping issues have combined to create supply bottlenecks and fuel a spike in inflation to about four percent, though Fed officials see that eventually subsiding.

Central bank leaders in recent days have said they favor starting to pull back on their current $120 billion a month in bond purchases, though some added a caveat that the Delta variant could cause a delay.

Kansas City Fed Bank President Esther George, host of the Jackson Hole conference and considered an inflation hawk, said Thursday that the strong data suggest "there's an opportunity to begin to dial back on asset purchases."

But in an interview on Fox Business Network, she hinted that the details may have to wait for "the communication... coming out of our September meeting."

Organizers intended to return the conference to its usual in-person format, but due to rising Covid-19 infections announced this week it would be held virtually for the second year in a row.

Powell's biggest concern is executing tapering without a repeat of the freak-out seen the last time the central bank tried the maneuver following a crisis.

The Fed first resorted to bond buying -- known as quantitative easing (QE) -- after the financial system froze up in the 2008 global economic downturn.

But when then-Fed chief Ben Bernanke in 2013 merely suggested the time was approaching to start to slow QE, markets rebelled, forcing a delay in the central bank's normalization efforts.

Powell has repeatedly promised to give markets plenty of advanced notice before relaxing purchases, but doing so will not be easy.

"He is walking a knife's edge," economist Diane Swonk of Grant Thornton told AFP.

"The best way to prevent a taper tantrum is to lay out a road map for tapering, with off ramps if variants do more to disrupt demand than supply chains," she said.

But "he can't ignore those risks and barrel ahead with tapering."

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