Yellen Words to be Parsed for Clues to Rates, Her Future

When Janet Yellen delivers her testimony on the Federal Reserve’s semiannual report to Congress on Wednesday, investors may listen as much for clues to her own future – and the Fed’s – as they will to what she says about interest rate policy.

The Fed chair is likely to repeat a message she has been sending about rates: That further gradual increases will follow the three rate hikes the Fed has made since December. She is expected to say that even though inflation has slowed further below the Fed’s target level, the job market appears healthy enough to justify slightly higher borrowing costs.

But lawmakers may prod Yellen about her own plans and about the potential reshaping of the Fed itself resulting from a forthcoming influx of new board members selected by President Donald Trump. During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump was critical of the central bank for its low-rate policies, which he said were helping Democrats, and for its efforts to enact tougher regulations on banks in response to the 2008 financial crisis.

On Monday, the administration announced that it had chosen Randal Quarles, a Treasury Department official under two Republican presidents, to serve as vice chairman for supervision, the Fed’s top bank regulatory post.

Including the post Quarles would fill, the Fed has three vacancies on the seven-member board. Trump has yet to announce his other choices, though at least one person –  Marvin Goodfriend, an economist, a former staffer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond and now a professor at Carnegie Mellon University – is considered a leading candidate for one of the spots.  All of Trump’s nominations will require Senate approval.

Yellen so far has deflected questions about whether she would accept a second four-term term as chairman if Trump asked her to remain after her term ends in February. But lawmakers may try to glean some insight into her own wishes and about how the Fed could potentially change under the influence of Trump’s nominees.

On Wednesday, Yellen will address the House Financial Services Committee and on Thursday the Senate Banking Committee. She will be testifying on the Fed’s Monetary Policy Report, with one wrinkle this time: For the first time, the Fed released the report five days before Yellen’s testimony. In the past, the two had occurred the same day.

The central bank explained the change by saying Fed officials wanted to give lawmakers more time to review the semiannual monetary report before Yellen addressed questions about it.

The report said the Fed “expects that the ongoing strength of the economy will warrant gradual increases in the federal funds rate,” referring to its benchmark short-term rate.

The Fed had slashed that rate to a record low near zero in December 2008 to combat the worst economic downturn since the 1930s – and kept it there for seven years until nudging it up modestly in December 2015. It then left the rate unchanged for another year until raising it again in December of last year, followed by increases in March and June this year. Even so, the rate remains in a still-low range between 1 percent and 1.25 percent.

The Fed’s report noted that officials had affirmed at their June meeting that they foresee a total of three rate increases in 2017, if the economy performs as they expect. If so, that would mean one additional increase before year’s end. The Fed also expects to raise rates three times in 2018 if economic conditions evolve as they expect.

This week, Yellen will surely face questions about sticking to that pace, given that while job growth has been solid, inflation has slowed this year rather than edging closer to the Fed’s 2 percent target.

In a speech Tuesday, Lael Brainard, a Fed board member who has often argued for a go-slow approach to rate hikes, said she wanted to “monitor inflation developments carefully and to move cautiously on further increases” in the Fed’s key rate.

Brainard suggested that she would support a move soon to begin paring the Fed’s $4.5 trillion balance sheet, which swelled to five times its previous size after the Fed bought Treasury and mortgage bonds to hold down long-term borrowing rates in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

At its June meeting, the Fed signaled that it could begin shrinking its balance sheet later this year, a step that could put gradual upward pressure on longer-term rates for such items as home mortgages.

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