Powell insists the Fed will move carefully on rate cuts, with probably fewer than the market expects

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell holds a press conference following the release of the Fed’s interest rate policy decision at the Federal Reserve in Washington, U.S., January 31, 2024. 

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell vowed in an interview aired Sunday that the central bank will proceed carefully with interest rate cuts this year and likely will move at a considerably slower pace than the market expects.

In a wide-ranging interview with “60 Minutes” after last week’s Federal Open Market Committee meeting, Powell expressed confidence in the economy, promised he wouldn’t be swayed by this year’s presidential election, and said the pain he feared from rate hikes never really materialized.

“With the economy strong like that, we feel like we can approach the question of when to begin to reduce interest rates carefully,” he told the news magazine’s Scott Pelley, according to a transcript CBS released.

“We want to see more evidence that inflation is moving sustainably down to 2%,” Powell added. “Our confidence is rising. We just want some more confidence before we take that very important step of beginning to cut interest rates.”

As he did during a Wednesday news conference, he said it’s unlikely the FOMC will make that first move in March, which futures markets had been anticipating.

The meeting concluded with the committee holding its benchmark borrowing rate in a range between 5.25%-5.5%. In its post-meeting statement, the committee said it would not be cutting “until it has gained greater confidence that inflation is moving” to the 2% target.

Markets have been making aggressive bets on how many cuts the Fed would make this year. Current pricing is pointing to five quarter-percentage points reductions, though Powell backed the FOMC’s December “dot plot” grid of individual members’ estimates that pointed to just three moves.

“We’ll update [the outlook] at the March meeting. I will say, though, nothing has happened in the meantime that would lead me to think that people would dramatically change their forecasts,” he said, noting that “the time is coming” for cuts but perhaps not yet.

Powell was broadly optimistic about the economy, noting that inflation, while still above the Fed’s target, has moderated while the jobs market is strong. Nonfarm payrolls accelerated by 353,000 in January, the Labor Department reported Friday. The biggest risk, he said, is likely from geopolitical events.

During the Fed’s annual retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in August 2022, in the early days of the rate-hike cycle, Powell warned that the policy tightening would cause “some pain.” However, that hasn’t been the case, he said in the “60 Minutes” interview.

“It really hasn’t happened. The economy has continued to grow strongly. Job creation has been high,” he said. “So really the kind of pain that I was worried about and so many others were, we haven’t had that. And that’s a really good thing. And, you know, we want that to continue.”

In another matter, Powell reiterated that neither he nor his colleagues would be swayed by political pressure during this presidential election year.

“We do not consider politics in our decisions. We never do. And we never will,” he said.