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Yellen signals Fed will likely raise rates in March

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen says the Fed is set to raise its benchmark interest rate later this month as long as economic data holds up. (Video: Reuters)

Federal Reserve chair Janet L. Yellen said a March rate hike would be “appropriate” if the economy continues to evolve as expected, signaling that the central bank will likely raise its benchmark interest rate sooner than many economists and investors had expected just a few weeks ago.

Until as recently as last week, Wall Street saw a rate hike as likelier in June. But in remarks made to the Executives Club of Chicago on Friday, Yellen cited a strong job market and rising inflation.

Although some analysts have speculated that the accelerated timetable for the rate increases could lead to more of them overall, Yellen appeared to affirm the Fed's position of three quarter-point rate hikes this year.

“At our meeting later this month, the Committee will evaluate whether employment and inflation are continuing to evolve in line with our expectations, in which case a further adjustment of the federal funds rate would likely be appropriate,” Yellen’s prepared remarks read.

“With the job market strengthening and inflation rising toward our target, the median assessment of FOMC participants as of last December was that a cumulative 3/4 percentage point increase in the target range for the federal funds rate would likely be appropriate over the course of this year,” Yellen said, adding that the Fed is projecting “additional gradual rate hikes in 2018 and 2019.”

Elsewhere in the speech, she indicated that the economy was meeting the Fed's expectations. “The economy has essentially met the employment portion of our mandate and inflation is moving closer to our 2 percent objective,” she said.

Yellen's remarks follow a blitz of statements from other high-profile members of the Federal Reserve this week who suggested a rate increase could happen at the Fed’s meeting in mid-March, earlier than what many investors had expected.

“I think the case for a rate increase in March has come together, and I think it’s on the table for discussion,” Federal Reserve Board governor Jerome Powell said in an interview on CNBC Thursday.

New York Fed President William Dudley remarked that the case for a rate hike had “become a lot more compelling,” while San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President John Williams said he didn’t “see any need to delay.” Fed governor Lael Brainard said that a rate increase would be “appropriate soon” if the economy continues to progress. Brainard and Dudley are thought to be among the Fed’s more dovish members.

In comments given at a conference in New York on Friday, Federal Reserve Vice Chair Stanley Fischer said he “strongly" supports the advice given by other FOMC members on the timing of interest rates.

The markets largely appeared to shrug off Yellen and Fischer's comments. Treasury yields edged up, as investors saw a prospect of higher inflation that would erode the real interest payouts of bonds. Stock markets have dipped slightly since surging to record highs Wednesday.

As of Friday midday, the odds of a March rate hike were above 80 percent, according to CME Group's FedWatch program, up from only 25 percent at the beginning of February.

In her speech, Yellen remarked that disappointing economic growth in the United States and abroad in 2015, the lower price of oil, and the appreciation of the dollar had persuaded the Fed to proceed cautiously. In early 2016, lower than anticipated growth and inflation, as well as international events such as the slowdown in the Chinese economy and Britain's exit from the European Union, again encouraged the committee to move more cautiously than anticipated.

Since mid-2016, however, the U.S. economy has shown more resilience, and risks from abroad have diminished, Yellen said. “On the whole, the prospects for further moderate economic growth look encouraging,” her prepared remarks said.

The data emerging about the U.S. economy has been solid in recent months, with growth gaining momentum in the United States and abroad, and emerging signs that higher inflation could be just around the corner. The personal consumption expenditures price index, the Fed’s favored measure of inflation, rose 1.9 percent in the 12 months ending in January, nearly reaching the Fed’s 2 percent inflation target.

In her comments, Yellen said the economy still faces challenges, such as sluggish gains in incomes, especially for those on the bottom of the ladder. But she also warned against the Fed waiting too long to raise rates in an environment of stronger economic growth.

“[We] realize that waiting too long to scale back some of our support could potentially require us to raise rates rapidly sometime down the road, which in turn could risk disrupting financial markets and pushing the economy into recession,” she said.

The Fed has been careful to emphasize that any rate hikes will follow the progress of the economy. Analysts say the central bank is likely to closely scrutinize the monthly jobs data, which will be released March 10, for any signs the economy is departing from its expected course.