The recent surge in oil prices is no prelude to broader price increases that would force the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, top Fed officials said on Thursday in what appears to be the predominant view at the central bank.
The comments, from Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota and Fed Board Governor Elizabeth Duke, echoed recent remarks by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, adding to expectations the central bank will stay on course with its $600 billion debt-buying program through the end of June and will not look to reverse its super-easy monetary policy any time soon.
Daniel Tarullo, also a Fed governor, identified himself as in the same camp, saying there are no signs that higher overall inflation, spurred by surging energy and commodity prices, will translate to underlying inflation. Tarullo, answering questions while speaking on a panel in Washington, said commodity prices are notoriously volatile.
Even a policymaker who is viewed as an inflation hawk at the central bank, Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser, said he saw no imminent danger that inflation would take off.
However, Plosser, who has questioned the Fed's bond buying program, said there is no guarantee higher energy prices will not pass through to overall inflation, particularly with Fed monetary policy operating at full throttle.
He said that in light of the solid recovery, the central bank must begin to consider when to start withdrawing the unprecedented support to the economy to weather a financial panic and deep recession.
The apparent strengthening of the U.S. economy suggests that, in the not-too-distant future, monetary policy will begin reversing course from a very accommodative policy stance, he said.
Plosser's views suggest the timing of the exit strategy will be a part of the debate at the Fed's next policy meeting April 26-27.
OIL'S EFFECT TRANSITORY
The Fed will eventually sell assets and raise rates to head off inflation, but right now there's not really much sign of inflationary pressures building up, Kocherlakota told local business leaders and citizens in Helena, Montana.
If we start to see that increase, he added, that's when you have to start to think about, 'OK, inflationary pressures are building up, we are going to have to raise rates.'
Recent spikes in energy costs have sparked worries about inflation among some economists and consumers. History suggests the effect of oil prices on inflation will be transitory, Kocherlakota said. Duke argued that prices are likely to stabilize over the next couple of months.
It would not be helpful if monetary policy reacted to every move in a volatile price, Duke said in response to questions after a conference in Washington sponsored by the International Factoring Association.
The rate of inflation over the medium term is a key and important number for us to pay attention to, Duke said. But when you look at things like gasoline prices, (they) are very volatile.
The Fed last November began buying $600 billion in long-term Treasury debt, its second round of asset purchases to battle the recent recession. The purchases are meant to lower the real cost of borrowing even further than the near-zero short-term interest rates that the Fed has kept in place since December 2008.
CORE SEEN PREDICTIVE
Some Fed officials, including Plosser, have signaled a possible need to raise rates before the end of the year.
But the core of the Federal Open Market Committee, which sets U.S. monetary policy, does not yet appear convinced.
U.S. wholesale prices rose 5.8 percent in the year to March, the largest gain in a year. But consumer prices, particularly outside food and energy, remain subdued, with wages remaining largely stagnant.
Core inflation gives a much better sense of where inflation is going in the future, Kocherlakota said, noting it is very low right now.
Duke, Kocherlakota, Plosser and Tarullo all have votes on the Fed's policy setting panel.
The Fed's plan is at some point to sell the more than $2 trillion of U.S. Treasury securities and mortgage-backed debt it has accumulated, Kocherlakota said. The U.S. central bank must also eventually raise rates or risk fueling inflation, he said.
He did not suggest any specific time frame or sequence for selling the debt or raising rates, but his comments on low inflation suggest he does not see those actions as imminent.