Senate confirms Powell to second term leading the Federal Reserve

Senate confirms Powell to second term leading the Federal Reserve

After steering through pandemic shock, the central bank faces highest inflation spell in four decades

"The process of getting inflation down to 2% will also include some pain, but ultimately, the most painful thing would be if we were to fail to deal with it." — Jerome Powell, Chairman of the Federal Reserve

The Senate on Thursday confirmed Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell to a second four-year term that is shaping up to be every bit as trying as his first term as the central bank faces the highest inflation in 40 years.

Mr. Powell's nomination, approved on an 80-19 vote, has been on track for months to win bipartisan approval despite unease over inflation and aggressive interest-rate increases that the Fed has urgently commenced to cool price pressures.

Separately, Mr. Powell said on Thursday the Fed was prepared to act aggressively to bring down inflation to its 2% goal even if it created a short-term hit to the economy, his most explicit acknowledgment of the risks posed by a sequence of rapid rate rises.

"The process of getting inflation down to 2% will also include some pain, but ultimately, the most painful thing would be if we were to fail to deal with it," he said on the Marketplace radio program. "Ultimately, we'd have to go through a much deeper downturn."

President Joe Biden said last fall he would reappoint Mr. Powell, opting for continuity as the scale of the central bank's challenges in controlling inflation was becoming more evident.

Mr. Powell, 69 years old, was tapped by President Donald Trump in 2018 to lead the central bank, six years after he won an appointment from President Barack Obama to its board of governors.

Mr. Powell, a former private-equity executive, was supported by lawmakers in both parties in an unusual show of broad political support for the central bank leader, who navigated the Fed's rapid response to a pandemic-driven economic emergency in 2020.

"Chair Powell is respected on both sides of the aisle for his steady leadership during the pandemic," Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.) said.

Six members who caucus with the Democrats and 13 Republicans voted against him.

Some lawmakers voting against him cited his handling of Fed policy as inflation rose.

"Powell and the rest of the Fed have failed the American people. We should not reward failure," Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) said in a statement.

Mr. Powell's description of price increases last year as temporary and decisions to initially withdraw stimulus slowly -- particularly after the Biden administration approved a $1.9 trillion spending bill -- has drawn criticism from economists on both sides of the aisle.

"As part of restoring its credibility, the Fed needs to engage in some kind of after-action report that tries to analyze why they … were as wrong as they were in assessing the inflation risk and judging inflation to be transitory during 2021," former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said in an interview last week.

Since the end of last year, Mr. Powell has pivoted the Fed toward rapidly removing stimulus.

The Fed has raised interest rates twice this year, most recently last week by a half percentage point -- the first such increase since 2000 -- to a range between 0.75% and 1%.

Mr. Powell signaled further half-point increases are likely until the central bank is confident that inflation is set to slow.

"If you had perfect hindsight…it probably would have been better for us to have raised rates sooner," he said in the radio interview on Thursday. "We have to make decisions in real-time, based on what we know then."

Mr. Powell repeated his view that further half-point increases are likely until the central bank is confident that inflation is set to slow, but he said the Fed could consider larger rate rises if economic data call for such steps.

Many investors took a comment he made last week to suggest that the Fed had ruled out raising rates by 0.75 percentage point.

The Fed's policy path makes it more likely that officials lift rates high enough to cause a recession. That is a different scenario from the more optimistic one sketched out in officials' March policy projections, a so-called soft landing in which inflation falls but unemployment stays low and the economy keeps growing.

The war in Ukraine has complicated the Fed's ability to achieve a soft landing because wars are often inflationary and the West's sanctioning of Russia threatens to further aggravate commodity price increases and global supply-chain disruptions.

Consumer prices rose 6.6% in March from a year before, as measured by the Fed's preferred gauge, the Commerce Department's personal-consumption expenditures price index.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in April stood at 3.6%, near a half-century low.

"The history is that every time we've had inflation above 4% and unemployment below 4%, we've had a recession in the next two years," said Mr. Summers. "It's definitely odds off that we will have a soft landing."

Several times on Thursday, Mr. Powell said he was realistic about the challenges of raising rates to cool demand and bring down inflation without higher unemployment.

"It will be challenging. It won't be easy. No one here thinks that it will be easy," he said.

One concern is that the surge in prices becomes intense enough or lasts long enough to change consumers' and businesses' inflation psychology, making those expectations self-fulfilling. If workers anticipate a robust inflation rate in a year's time, they could seek higher wages now.

"The one thing we really cannot do is fail to restore price stability," Mr. Powell said Thursday. "The economy doesn't work for anyone unless you do that."

Last fall, some progressive Democrats heavily lobbied Mr. Biden to replace Mr. Powell with someone who would adhere to his easy-money postpandemic stimulus policies while taking a tougher approach to financial regulation, particularly by using bank supervision tools to shape climate change policy.

White House advisers saw Mr. Powell as someone who could more easily secure Senate confirmation.

They further credited him with providing a steady hand during the pandemic and an earlier interval in which he deflected attacks from Mr. Trump, who wanted more Fed stimulus before the pandemic.

Mr. Powell's nomination was paired with the promotion of Fed governor Lael Brainard to serve as vice chairwoman. The Senate confirmed her to that position on April 26.

Mr. Biden has been able to further put his stamp on the central bank with the confirmation earlier this week of two other economists to fill vacancies on the Fed's Washington-based board of governors -- Lisa Cook of Michigan State University and Philip Jefferson of Davidson College.

With Mr. Powell's confirmation, Mr. Biden will have named four of six Fed governors to their current positions.

Some analysts have speculated the new nominees might favor less-aggressive rate increases, but they are unlikely to slow the Fed from pursuing a faster pace of tightening so long as inflation remains well above the Fed's 2% target.

The president also nominated Michael Barr, a law professor at the University of Michigan, to serve as the Fed's vice chairman of bank supervision and fill a final vacancy on the seven-person board. His confirmation hearing is set for May 19.

Mr. Powell's first four-year term as chairman expired in early February and he has been serving in an acting capacity as "chair pro tempore" since then.

The confirmation process for the Fed nominations stalled in February when Democrats refused to move Mr. Biden's picks individually and Republicans refused to vote on his initial selection for vice chairwoman of bank supervision, Sarah Bloom Raskin, who withdrew from consideration in March.

The political support that Mr. Powell cultivated proved valuable throughout his first term. He navigated a policy U-turn from raising rates to cutting them in 2019 while Mr. Trump threatened to fire the Fed leader for not providing easier monetary policy.

Mr. Powell made clear in private that there were no circumstances, short of his death, under which he would voluntarily be forced from his job.

Later, he orchestrated one of the boldest economic policy responses since World War II, acting in concert with Congress and the U.S. Treasury.

The Fed slashed interest rates to zero and then purchased trillions of dollars of government debt and offered to buy trillions more in loans and other assets to backstop credit markets.

At a congressional hearing in early March, Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.) lauded Mr. Powell's fast action when the pandemic hit in March 2020.

"Government shut down the private sector…. Markets are panicking. Everybody's looking at you to calm things down," he said. "You did."

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