The Omicron variant of the coronavirus comes at a challenging moment for the Federal Reserve, as officials try to pivot from containing the pandemic’s economic fallout toward addressing worryingly persistent inflation.
The central bank has spent the past two years trying to support a still-incomplete labor market recovery, keeping interest rates at rock bottom and buying trillions of dollars’ worth of government-backed bonds since March 2020. But now that inflation has shot higher, and as price gains increasingly threaten to remain too quick for comfort, its policymakers are having to balance their efforts to support the economy with the need to keep price trends from leaping out of control.
That newfound focus on inflation may limit the central bank’s ability to cushion any blow Omicron might deal to America’s growth and the labor market. And in an unexpected twist, the new variant could even speed up the Fed’s withdrawal of economic support if it intensifies the factors that are causing inflation to run at its fastest pace in 31 years.
“In every one of the previous waves of the virus, the Fed was able to react by effectively focusing on downside risks to growth, and trying to mitigate them,” said Aneta Markowska, chief financial economist at Jefferies. “They’re no longer able to do that, because of inflation.”
said in an interview last week.
The Status of U.S. Jobs
The pandemic continues to impact the U.S. economy in a multitude of ways. One key factor to keep an eye on is the job market and how it changes as the economic recovery moves forward.
Janet L. Yellen, the Treasury secretary and a former Fed chair, made similar remarks at an event on Thursday.
“The pandemic could be with us for quite some time and, hopefully, not completely stifling economic activity but affecting our behavior in ways that contribute to inflation,” she said of the new variant.
during congressional testimony last week. “I think the risk of higher inflation has increased.”
What to Know About Inflation in the U.S.
Fed officials initially expected a 2021 price pop to fade quickly as supply chains unsnarled and factories worked through backlogs. Instead, inflation has been climbing at its fastest pace in more than three decades, and fresh data set for release on Friday are expected to show that the ascent continued as a broad swath of products — like streaming services, rental housing and food — had higher prices.
Given that, Mr. Powell and his colleagues have pivoted to inflation-fighting mode, trying to ensure that they are poised to respond decisively should price pressures persist.
Mr. Powell said last week that officials would discuss speeding up their plans to taper off their bond-buying program — prompting many economists to expect them to announce a plan after their December meeting that would allow them to stop buying bonds by mid-March. The Fed announced early in November that it would slow purchases from $120 billion a month, making the possible acceleration a notable change.
Ending bond-buying early would put officials in a position to raise their policy interest rate, which is their more traditional and more powerful tool.