Powell backs more rate hikes as economy growing 'considerably stronger'

The U.S. economy is running at a fast enough pace to justify continued interest rate increases, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Tuesday.

Powell is delivering his semiannual testimony to Congress this week, starting with an appearance Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

In remarks he provided ahead of a question-and-answer session, Powell painted a largely positive picture of the economy, which he said is expanding at an increasing pace and is being boosted by aggressive fiscal policy on Capitol Hill.

“Overall, we see the risk of the economy unexpectedly weakening as roughly balanced with the possibility of the economy growing faster than we currently anticipate,” Powell said.

“The unemployment rate is low and expected to fall further. Americans who want jobs have a good chance of finding them,” he added.

Powell spoke as the central bank is in the process of gradually raising interest rates. The policymaking Federal Open Market Committee has hiked the Fed’s benchmark rate twice this year in quarter-point increments, and is expected to approve two more increases before the end of the year.

Though the economy grew at just a 2 percent pace in the first quarter, Powell said growth in the second quarter was “considerably stronger than the first.”

“Robust job gains, rising after-tax incomes, and optimism among households have lifted consumer spending in recent months. Investment by businesses has continued to grow at a healthy rate,” he said. “Good economic performance in other countries has supported U.S. exports and manufacturing. And while housing construction has not increased this year, it is up noticeably from where it stood a few years ago.”

Inflation is running around the Fed’s 2 percent target for the first time in several years, while the unemployment rate is at 4 percent and consistent with a level that most economists consider near to full employment. Powell said wages are growing faster than a year ago but not enough to stoke inflation fears.

Powell made brief mention of the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and its global competitors, saying only that it is “difficult to predict” what the ramifications will be on the economy.

However, the “upbeat tone” from the testimony likely means the trade issues won’t keep the Fed from hiking rates, said Andrew Hunter, U.S. economist at Capital Economics.

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