Fed governor says bigger rate hike in March might be needed

Federal Reserve Governor Christopher Waller said Thursday he is willing to support a half-point interest rate hike at the central bank’s next meeting in March if upcoming data suggests inflation is worsening.

Waller’s comments, in a speech at the University of California, Santa Barbara, underscore the range of opinion among Fed officials about its next steps.

After Russia invaded Ukraine early Thursday, many economists and investors considered a half-point rate hike much less likely at the March meeting. But Waller only said the invasion’s impact on the U.S. economy “remains to be seen.”

The Fed is looking to increase its benchmark short-term interest rate as inflation surged to 7.5% in January compared with a year earlier, the biggest increase in four decades. A higher rate typically pushes up borrowing costs for mortgages, credit cards, and other consumer and business loans, slowing growth and price increases.

The debate over how quickly to raise interest rates is being closely watched by financial markets and also could have an impact on the broader economy. If the Fed hikes rates too slowly, inflation could remain high and become more difficult to control. But if it lifts borrowing costs too quickly, it could choke off the economy and cause a recession.

Some analysts have said Fed officials want to maintain flexibility about the size of an almost-certain rate hike heading into their March 15-16 meeting. The next consumer price report will be released March 10, during the Fed’s “blackout period,” when officials stop speaking publicly before a meeting. Some Fed policymakers want to keep a half-point increase on the table in case that report shows inflation accelerating.

Other Fed officials have pushed back against a bigger hike in recent days, including Patrick Harker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, on Thursday. Last Friday, New York Fed President John Williams and Fed Governor Lael Brainard endorsed a series of quarter point hikes starting in March. Williams and Brainard are close to Chair Jerome Powell.

On Monday, however, Fed Governor Michelle Bowman said she is willing to support a half-point rate hike in March if the economic data suggested it was necessary. And St. Louis Fed President James Bullard has expressed support for a half-point increase.

Waller, who worked at the St. Louis Fed for Bullard before being appointed to the Fed board, said he would like to see the Fed’s benchmark rate, now between zero and 0.25%, increased to a range of 1% to 1.25% by early summer.

That could be accomplished with a quarter-point hike at each of the next four Fed meetings, Waller said. But if upcoming inflation and jobs reports show little sign of the economy cooling, “a strong case can be made” for a 0.5 percentage point increase in March, he added.

Harker, meanwhile, said Thursday on the Wharton Business Daily podcast that the Fed should be careful about raising rates too quickly.

“What we don’t want to do is step too hard on the brakes and then ruin what otherwise … is a relatively good economy,” he said.

But Harker did not completely close the door to half-point hike.

“If inflation really comes out at the next reading much higher than we hoped, we’re not seeing any movement downward, I would be more open to it,” he said. “But right now, I’m not.”

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