Powell and the Markets Talk Past Each Other

Markets surged on Wednesday after Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, indicated that the world’s most powerful central bank would slow the pace of rate increases this month. The fact that this remark was balanced by warnings about the uncertain outlook for inflation and policy proved irrelevant for markets. All that they heard was the good news.

This is far from comforting for a Fed that still needs the markets to help it bring down high inflation. It also does not help counter the political pressures it faces for failing to respond to inflation on a timely basis nor the risks of tipping the economy into a recession that would hit the most vulnerable segments of the population particularly hard.

By imagining the following hypothetical, tongue-in-cheek conversation between Powell and financial markets, you may get a good feel for two things: why the Fed faces, and will continue to face, a tricky communication challenge that is consequential for the well-being of the US and global economies, and why it confronts what will be an intensifying political challenge.

Powell: Did you listen to ALL that I said on Wednesday at the Brookings Institution?

Markets: We heard one thing more than anything else. You are definitely going to slow the pace of interest rate hikes starting as early as this month! You were totally unambiguous in stating that “the time for moderating the pace of rate increases may come as soon as the December meeting.” That is dynamite!

Powell: But there was so much more to what I said. I provided several warnings about what is ahead and, therefore, I pointed to interest rates going higher for longer.

Markets: Maybe. But you also mentioned that you are worried about tightening too much. You hadn’t done that for quite a while. And it is not only you. You explicitly said that it was your FOMC colleagues as well.