Yellen to face Congress amid uncertainty on Fed rate policy

WASHINGTON – Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen will address Congress on Wednesday at a time of deepening uncertainty about the Fed’s interest rate policies.

Since the Fed raised rates from record lows in December, the economic landscape has become clouded by falling stock markets, global weakness and sharply lower energy prices. Against that backdrop, lawmakers will likely want to question Yellen about the probable pace of further rate hikes and the Fed’s role in supporting the U.S. economy.

After testifying to the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday, Yellen will address the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday.

Last week’s jobs report for January further complicated the likelihood and timetable of additional rate increases. It showed more pay for workers and rising confidence among job seekers, even though the pace of hiring slowed.

So are more Fed rate hikes coming soon?

There is less certainty now than when the Fed raised its target rate for overnight lending on Dec. 16 from a record low near zero to a range of 0.25 per cent to 0.5 per cent. Stocks have been battered. So far this year, the Dow Jones industrial average has lost 8.1 per cent. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index is down 9.4 per cent. And the tech-heavy Nasdaq has plunged 14.8 per cent.

It’s unclear how much Yellen will say about the likely timetable for rate increases. She and other Fed officials have stressed that their decisions remain “data dependent” — that is, hinge largely on the latest economic data.

Much of that data since December has been tepid. Manufacturing has slumped. Corporate profits are down. Business stockpiles are up. Shrunken oil prices have squeezed energy companies.

On the other hand, the job market — the most vital part of the economy — remains solid. Worker pay is even starting to show its first significant gains since the Great Recession ended 6 1/2 years ago. The Fed has long awaited faster wage growth for evidence that the job market is as strong as the steady hiring gains and low unemployment rate (now 4.9 per cent) would suggest.

After the Fed began raising rates late last year, the widespread expectation was that it would continue to boost its benchmark rate gradually but steadily, most likely starting in March. But that was before global markets became deeply unsettled. Concerns intensified that China, the world’s second-largest economy, was slowing even more than expected. And oil prices resumed their fall.

The value of the dollar has also strengthened further, crimping U.S. manufacturers, whose export sales fell last year for the first time since the recession year of 2009. A key manufacturing gauge has been in recession territory for four months.

The overall economy grew at a meagre 0.7 per cent annual rate in the October-December quarter, leading some analysts to begin wondering about the possibility of another recession within a year or two.

Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at the Martin Smith School of Business at California State University, said he expected Yellen, in addressing Congress, to leave the door open for a gradual rise in rates if market conditions stabilize and the economy rebounds. Some analysts say they think her testimony will echo comments the Fed’s vice chair, Stanley Fischer, made in a speech last week.

Fischer took note of the market turmoil, diminished oil prices and strengthened dollar and said, “If these developments lead to a persistent tightening of financial conditions, they could signal a slowing in the global economy that could affect growth and inflation in the United States.”

Fischer noted, though, that previous periods of market volatility had had no permanent impact on the economy.

“We simply do not know” the timing and pace of future rate hikes, Fischer said.