Fed Bullard Warns Against Rate Hikes Amid Low Inflation Bets

The Fed should slow its pace of policy normalization to help re-align price expectations around 2 percent and maintain the credibility of its inflation target, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard said Tuesday in Tokyo.

“Inflation expectations in the U.S. remain somewhat low, suggesting that further normalization may not be necessary to keep inflation near target,” “A reasonable policy going forward may be to temper the pace of normalization.”

He also said that raising rates aggressively risked inverting the yield curve, an outcome that markets could interpret as signaling an impending economic downturn.

His comments come ahead of a likely rate increase at the Federal Open Market Committee’s meeting in June.

Bullard, who isn’t currently a voting member of the policy-setting committee, said continued low inflation expectations could inhibit the Fed’s ability to maintain the credibility of its 2 percent target.

He repeated his stance that the central bank should avoid raising interest rates at a pace that pushes up short-term rates above longer-term rates. Historically such a development has often preceded an economic downturn, especially in the U.S., he said, adding that he became a “convert” on this issue after he got its implications wrong in 2000 and 2006.

Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan and Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic have also expressed concern over a possible flipping of the yield curve.

“It is unnecessary for the FOMC to be so aggressive as to invert the yield curve,” Bullard said. “The U.S. nominal yield curve could invert later this year or in 2019, which would be a bearish signal for U.S. macroeconomic prospects.”

The Fed policy rate is already near neutral, putting neither upward or downward pressure on inflation, added Bullard, who has been the most dovish Fed official over the past two years. He has argued that the U.S. economy has been saddled with persistently low growth, so there is little need to raise interest rates much.

The rate hikes that have already taken place also give the Fed more room to handle the next recession should it occur, Bullard said.

The FOMC is likely to raise rates “soon” if the economy performs as expected, according to the minutes of the panel’s May 1-2 meeting released last week. Investors expect a hike in June, though the outlook for increases in the second half of the year is less certain.

The FOMC has raised interest rates six times since it began the current hiking cycle in December 2015. In March forecasts, the committee was split on whether to lift rates two or three additional times this year amid an improving economic outlook and rising inflation.