By Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Federal Reserve officials on Monday turned their focus toward a debate over monetary policy that will heat up in coming months as the Fed slows the pace of its asset purchases, clearing the decks for interest rate hikes as soon as next year.
At the center of the debate will be an assessment of how many more jobs the economy can add, and how much longer high inflation can be tolerated, given that the rate of price increases is already pushing beyond comfortable levels.
Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida said that while the U.S. central bank remains "a ways away from considering raising interest rates," if his current outlook for the economy proves correct, then the "necessary conditions for raising the target range for the federal funds rate will have been met by year-end 2022."
Inflation to date already presents "much more than a 'moderate' overshoot of our 2% longer-run inflation objective, and I would not consider a repeat performance next year a policy success," Clarida said.
Economists expect a government report due out this week to show consumer price inflation rose 5.8% in the 12 months through October in what would be the fifth straight month of above 5% year-over-year price increases.
He said economic growth should drive the unemployment rate to 3.8% by the end of next year, and "eliminate the 4.2 million 'employment gap' relative to" the months before the pandemic.
At that point an interest rate path similar to the one laid out by Fed officials in September would "be entirely consistent" with the Fed's new framework for hitting its 2% inflation target and reaching "maximum employment," Clarida said in remarks prepared for presentation at the Brookings Institution.
That rate "dot plot" showed 18 Fed officials evenly split over the need to raise rates next year, with a majority showing rates rising more steadily in 2023 and 2024.
In separate remarks St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard repeated his outlook that the Fed will need to raise rates twice next year - with U.S. job markets already so tight it is adding to inflation through growing wage and compensation costs.
The unemployment rate fell to 4.6% in October, a government report showed Friday, still above the 3.5% level before the pandemic but well below the 14.8% high in April 2020.
"We are going to see downward pressure on the unemployment rate and we are going to continue to see a very hot jobs market with compensation rising," Bullard said on Fox Business Network. "We've got quite a bit of inflation here. ... We definitely want to see that come down closer to our inflation target."
"If inflation is more persistent than we are saying right now, then I think we may have to take a little sooner action in order to keep inflation under control," Bullard said, adding that he feels that many of the millions of Americans who left the workforce during the pandemic are not likely to return to the job market, leaving the labor supply tight.
Fed Governor Michelle Bowman echoed those concerns in a separate appearance later in the day.
"We are making great strides toward our maximum employment goal and I'm watching for signs that the labor market might become too hot," Bowman told a Women in Housing and Finance gathering. "But my main concern again is the outlook for inflation, which has remained elevated much longer than most of us expected earlier in the year."
High inflation, she said, poses a particular hardship for the elderly and the poor, and rising energy and food prices could push up broad inflation expectations more than many realize.
"I am concerned about the supply chain disruptions and about labor shortages that have pushed inflation higher and I'll continue to watch these developments closely," she said.
The Fed is currently on track to completely wind down its bond-buying by the middle of next year, and Evans and others cautioned against viewing that process as sending any direct signal about the timing of a rate increase.
"I don’t expect that the federal funds rate will rise before the tapering is complete," Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker said during a virtual event organized by the Economic Club of New York. "But we are monitoring inflation very closely and are prepared to take action, should circumstances warrant it."
In a separate appearance Chicago Fed President Charles Evans stuck to his view that the current inflation surge is likely to be temporary, but he also sounded less sure of that outlook.
Signs that inflation pressures are broadening, he said. "present a greater upside risk to my inflation outlook than I had thought last summer."
Still, he told reporters after his talk, there's a "high bar" to speeding up the taper; to do so, he said, he would need to see a "totally different" world than what he currently expects. Today's strong inflation readings are mostly driven by supply shocks that will eventually wane, he said, adding that he is of the view the Fed can wait until 2023 before needing to raise rates.
"I still tend to think we have time to be patient," he said.
(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir with reporting by Jonnelle Marte and Lindsay DunsmuirEditing by Mark Potter, Andrea Ricci and Jonathan Oatis)