Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell’s speech Friday at the annual Jackson Hole forum was consistent with his very gradual and highly measured approach to policy changes — an approach that financial markets love as it implies a longer period of very loose liquidity that fuels ever higher asset prices. The real question, however, is whether the speech will end up being out of touch with actual economic and financial developments as they unfold over the remainder of this year and beyond.
By refraining from breaking new ground or providing operational details of any evolution in policy, both of which would have inevitably tilted more hawkish at this point, Powell gave investors more reason to take stocks and bonds higher. And indeed, stocks rallied to a new record while bond prices also rose.
Economists, however, seemed less convinced by the argumentation, the stated outlook and what it implies for the Fed’s go-slow policy evolution that markets like so much. More concerned about the two-sided nature of the inflation risk and the potential for a policy mistake, some would have favored a firmer signal about an imminent taper of the Fed’s large-scale asset purchases, something that I have argued is not just needed for both economic wellbeing and longer-term financial stability, but is also overdue.
Powell in his speech appeared mindful not only of the latest facts on the ground that could guide Fed action, but also of the highly visible and accelerating hawkish swing among a growing number of members the policy-making Federal Open Market Committee. Specifically, in evaluating recent economic developments against the Fed’s formal dual mandate (price stability and employment), he observed that the Fed’s “substantial further progress” test of the economic recovery has been met as regards inflation, and that “there has also been clear progress toward maximum employment.”
As these remarks would imply him being inclined toward an earlier taper timetable than he favored just a few weeks ago, Powell was quick to wrap this economic assessment in a twin packaging that was more dovish than what markets expected.