Powell says Fed has made ‘quite a bit of progress’ on inflation but needs more confidence before cutting

U.S. Federal Reserve Bank Chair Jerome Powell announces that interest rates will remain unchanged during a news conference at the Federal Reserves’ William McChesney Martin building on June 12, 2024 in Washington, DC. 

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Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell expressed satisfaction Tuesday with the progress on inflation over the past year but said he wants to see more before being confident enough to start cutting interest rates.

“We’ve made quite a bit of progress and in bringing inflation back down to our target,” Powell said at a central banking forum in Sintra, Portugal.

“The last [inflation] reading and the one before it to a lesser, lesser extent, suggest that we are getting back on the disinflationary path. We want to be more confident that inflation is moving sustainably down toward 2% before we start the process of reducing or loosening policy,” he added.

Powell spoke at a forum that also included European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde and Brazil central bank Governor Roberto Campos Neto. The forum is presented by the ECB and the discussion was moderated by CNBC’s Sara Eisen.

The comments come with markets closely watching moves from the Fed and its global counterparts as inflation shows signs of easing and some central banks, including the ECB, have slowly started rolling back interest rates.

The Commerce Department’s personal consumption expenditures price index, which the Fed focuses on as its main inflation gauge, rose at a 2.6% 12-month level in May. That level has come down steadily after being around 4% a year ago, though policymakers do not expect it to reach the Fed’s 2% goal until 2026.

While Powell said he sees progress on inflation, he’s wary of moving too soon and threatening the downward path of price increases, which hit their highest pace since the early 1980s two years ago.

“We’re well aware that if we go too soon, that we can undo the good work we’ve done,” he said. “If we do it too late, we could unnecessarily undermine the recovery and the expansion.”

Risks of moving too late as opposed to too soon have come into better balance this year as inflation has ebbed and the economy and labor market have stayed strong, Powell added. By contrast, the Fed spent much of the past year worried that cutting rates too soon and allowing inflation to resume its upward trek posed the greater risk.

Earlier this year, markets had expected at least six Fed rate cuts of a quarter percentage point each. Market pricing has since adjusted to anticipate two cuts, one in September and another before the end of the year. However, members of the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee at their June meeting penciled in just one.

Asked if he thought the Fed might cut in September, Powell responded, “I’m not going to be landing on any specific dates here today.”

He also was asked about whether he was concerned about the political climate and specifically should Donald Trump, a fierce Powel critic, should win the November presidential election.

“I am not focused on that at all, and that’s that’s not just a talking point. I really think that we just keep doing our jobs,” he said.