Here's what Jerome Powell's critics and defenders have been saying as the Fed gets ready to possibly raise rates for the last time in the current cycle
- Fed Chair Jerome Powell has faced mounting criticism for his leadership of the US central bank.
- Critics have blasted the Fed for responding too late to inflation and now being on the brink of causing a recession.
The economy may be teetering on the edge of a recession — and a lot of people are blaming Jerome Powell.
Lately some of his biggest critics have been politicians, both Republican and Democrat, who say the leader of the US central bank is botching the job.
"He has had two jobs. One is to deal with monetary policy. One is to deal with regulation. He has failed at both," Senator Elizabeth Warren said days after the fall of Silicon Valley Bank. Warren was among the chorus of commentators who said the turmoil was partly a consequence of the Federal Reserve's policy actions as it aggressively tightened interest rates in 2022 after nearly a decade of ultra-loose monetary policy.
"He's done a horrible job. So when you go buy gas, and when you to the grocery and pay the rent, you can thank Jay Powell … for this ridiculously high inflation," Senator Rick Scott said a few weeks after the SVB crash.
Even the person who appointed Powell to lead the central bank, former president Donald Trump, has expressed his disapproval.
"I was not a big fan of Powell," Trump said in an interview with Fox last month. "He was recommended by some people [for Fed chair]. I didn't like him. He's too interest-rate-happy."
What are his critics saying?
The big criticism that Powell faces is that he was too slow in addressing inflation.
Low interest rates, particularly when the economy was shuttered during the COVID-19 crisis, rejuvenated markets and led stocks to new highs in 2021, but Powell's reluctance to raise rates is the source of the most withering criticisms chasing him today.
When inflation began to rise in 2021 — partly from the effects of the Fed's monetary easing during the pandemic — messaging from Powell and the Fed was that rising prices were a "transitory" phenomenon, a description the Fed would be forced to abandon as it confronted the painful reality that prices weren't coming back down. Inflation would go on to notch a 41-year-high in the middle of last year, and Powell himself admits that prices still remain "much too high."
Now the Fed is faced with a dilemma critics say is one of its own making. Raise rates too fast and too far, and recession is almost guaranteed. Not far enough and inflation becomes entrenched.
One big critic has been top economist Mohamed El-Erian. In a recent interview, El-Erian compared the Fed's monetary policy to driving in fog at maximum speed, and then suddenly slamming on the brakes.
"Do we expect accidents when someone drives like that? Yes. And we do, we've gotten financial accidents. To me, this doesn't come as a surprise at all," he said. "The hope is we don't get a big economic accident."
Does Powell have his defenders?
With so many economists, academics, and politicians lobbing criticisms at the central bank chief, it can be hard to find a commentator out there who's got a kind word for the job Powell has been doing.
A few, however, say that he's doing the best he can given the unprecedented circumstances.
"I think J. Powell's done a pretty good job," billionaire Carlyle co-founder David Rubenstein said in a recent interview with CNBC, pointing to the Fed's review of economic data when making policy decisions and Powell's transparency with markets. Unlike previous central bank chiefs, Powell doesn't communicate in "Fedspeak," Rubenstein said, as his comments are generally jargon-free and can be easily understood by the general public. "He tells you pretty much what he's going to do, and then he explains it afterwards. The Fed used to not do that."
Other colleagues say his calm demeanor is fitting for someone in the driver's seat of the economy — especially in the face of the current storm of macro conditions.
"I never saw him lose his temper," former Dallas Fed President Richard Fishertold the Washington Post. "Jay doesn't promote himself like so many do in Washington. He likes to do the unglamorous jobs."
Is a "soft landing" of the economy still possible?
The result of Powell's botched job, critics say, is that the Fed will steer the US economy into a so-called "hard landing," or a deeper recession that would have been the case if Powell was on the ball sooner when it came to inflation.
However, some commentators say it's still possible the economy may not tip into a recession, and that the Fed ultimately has made the right policy moves over the last year.
Prices have been on a steady downtrend since mid-2022, and despite high interest rates, the labor market and consumer spending has remained fairly robust.
"You simply don't have recessions when the employment backdrop is that strong and the consumer remains healthy," Ryan Detrick, Carson Group's chief market strategist previously told Insider.
Even El-Erian, who has repeatedly bashed Powell's leadership over the past year, admitted there was "no reason" for the US to tip into recession unless the Fed was guilty of another policy misstep.
"It's going to play out over several quarters. It's not a sudden stop, it's not 2008," he said of a potential recession.
Experts say that a recession will largely depend on the trajectory of the Fed's rate hikes, and whether tightening financial conditions will squeeze the US into a downturn.
Markets are now pricing in an 85% chance that the Fed hikes rates 25 basis-points at their next policy meeting this coming week, according to the CME FedWatch tool, before likely pausing and then ultimately cutting rates later in the year.
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