Fed Chairman Jerome Powell retires the word 'transitory' in describing inflation

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The nation’s economic steward said it will back off of using the word “transitory” to describe the fast pace of price increases, as Federal Reserve policymakers acknowledge the increasing risk of more persistent inflation.

“We tend to use [the word transitory] to mean that it won’t leave a permanent mark in the form of higher inflation,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell told Congress on Tuesday. “I think it’s probably a good time to retire that word and try to explain more clearly what we mean.”

The central bank had been using the T-word since the beginning of the year, when Fed officials warned that nuances in year-over-year comparisons and supply chain bottlenecks would lead to eye-popping inflation readings.

The hope was that those high readings would fade in the later part of 2021. Instead, inflation accelerated. In October, prices soared 6.2% year-over-year, the fastest annual rise seen in the Consumer Price Index since 1990.

Powell acknowledged that the “risk of higher inflation has increased,” but reiterated that his baseline expectation is for inflation to fall closer to the central bank’s 2% target over the course of 2022.

The Fed’s preferred measure of inflation is the Personal Consumption Expenditures Index, which rose by 5% on a year-over-year basis in October.

Other Fed officials have similarly backed off of using the word “transitory.” San Francisco Fed President Mary Daly told Yahoo Finance on Nov. 23 that the word was intended to link higher inflation to disruptions particular to COVID-19.

“The first principle of effective communication is if people aren’t getting it, don't speak more loudly and more emphatically,” Daly said.

The Fed may attempt to get ahead of inflation by more rapidly pulling back on its asset purchase program, a process it kicked off this month. The central bank hoped to fully end its open market purchases of mortgage-backed securities and U.S. Treasuries by the middle of next year, but Powell opened the door to accelerating that timeline on Tuesday.

“We now look at an economy that is very strong and inflationary pressures that are very high and that means it's appropriate for us to discuss at our next meeting — which is in a couple weeks — whether it would be appropriate to wrap up our purchases a few months early,” Powell said.

The Fed’s next policy-setting meeting is scheduled for Dec. 14 and 15.

Brian Cheung is a reporter covering the Fed, economics, and banking for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @bcheungz.

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