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Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen signalled Friday that the Fed will likely resume raising interest rates later this month, to reflect a strengthening job market and inflation edging toward the central bank’s 2% target rate.

In a speech in Chicago, Yellen said that the Fed expects steady economic improvement to justify additional rate increases. While not specifying how many rate hikes could occur this year, Yellen noted that Fed officials in December had estimated that there would be three in 2017.

The Fed will next meet March 14-15. At that meeting, Yellen said in her speech, the policymakers 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 signal of a likely rate hike this month reflects an encouraging conclusion by the Fed: that nearly eight years after the Great Recession ended, the U.S. economy has finally regained most of its health.

Her comments echoed remarks that several other Fed officials made this week suggesting that they were all but certain to resume raising rates at their next meeting.

Still, a rate increase this month isn’t necessarily a certainty. Any unexpected wave of poor economic news or worrisome global developments could give the Fed pause. The government’s jobs report for February, to be issued next Friday, will be of particular interest.

But the most recent data–notably on job growth, manufacturing and consumer confidence–along with surging stock prices have been broadly encouraging.

In December, the Fed raised its benchmark rate by a quarter-point to a range of 0.5% to 0.75%. It was its first increase since December 2015, when the Fed raised its key rate from a record low. In estimating three rate hikes for 2017, the Fed was indicating a quickened pace of increases.

In a reaction report, Scotiabank’s Derek Holt, vice-president and head of capital markets economics, says markets haven’t react strongly to Yellen’s comments so far. “Markets are largely shaking off Chair Yellen’s speech, in terms of the USD and two- year Treasuries,” he notes.

But, he says, “gone from the speech is any reference to ‘months ahead’ that Yellen used just two weeks ago to signal uncertainty over timing the next hike in her testimony before Congress, and this omission is what is more important than anything that’s actually in the speech. […] From a rates and currency standpoint, there is nothing in this speech that goes beyond what is already largely priced in.”

Holt adds, “Yellen is reaffirming the last dot plot and neither signalling more nor fewer hikes. […] “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.” Holt and his team expect additional but gradual rate hikes in 2018 and 2019.

In her speech, Yellen sought to explain why the Fed has been slow to raise rates in the past two years. She pointed to the prolonged drop in oil prices that started in 2014 and slowed spending by energy companies. And she noted a rise in the value of the dollar, which depressed inflation and hurt export sales by making American goods costlier overseas.

Other disruptive events last year led the Fed to proceed cautiously. They included anemic U.S. economic growth early in the year, global fears about a sharp slowdown in China and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

Despite all that, Yellen said, “The U.S. economy has exhibited remarkable resilience in the face of adverse shocks.”

She said she saw no evidence to suggest that the Fed has been excessively slow to raise rates or that inflation is threatening to rise too quickly. “I therefore continue to have confidence that a gradual removal of accommodation is likely to be appropriate,” Yellen said.

At the same time, she added: “Unless unanticipated developments adversely affect the economic outlook, the process of scaling back accommodation likely will not be as slow as it was during the past couple of years.”

In a research note, CIBC Capital Markets chief economist Avery Shenfeld says, “Yellen was about as clear as she could be in a pre-meeting remark in suggesting that the Fed is likely to hike in March, and that will swamp any attention to [James] Bullard’s dovish take.” Bullard is the 12th president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and he’s known as dovish. 

Shenfeld says Yellen commented on how “the last half of 2016 allowed the Fed to gain confidence that it would meet its goals for employment and inflation.” For a March hike, the Fed committee will zero in on employment and inflation expectations, he adds. 

Market expectations

Before central bank officials began speaking out this week, many Fed watchers and investors had been doubtful of a rate increase this month.

The assumption was that Fed officials would want to assess President Donald Trump’s proposed tax cuts and increased spending for the military and infrastructure projects, after the details of those projects and the likelihood of their congressional passage became clear. Many thought the Fed would want to wait until June to resume raising rates.

A major reason for the recent signals from Fed officials for a rate increase is the robust job market. On Thursday, for example, the government reported that first-time applications for unemployment benefits _ a proxy for the pace of layoffs–fell last week to their lowest level in nearly 44 years.

The stock market, in the meantime, has been setting a string of record highs, fueled by confidence that Trump’s plans for cutting taxes and boosting spending will win congressional approval.

And inflation, which had been lagging at chronically low levels, has been edging steadily up, reflecting in part a rebound in gasoline prices and higher wages. The Fed’s preferred inflation gauge showed that prices rose 1.9% over the 12 months that ended in January. That was the largest 12-month gain in nearly five years and just below the Fed’s 2% target for inflation.

Some Fed officials suggested that the rise in inflation and the low 4.8% unemployment rate were evidence that the central bank was now close to achieving its dual mandates of maximum employment and stable prices.

As of 2:05 pm CT, CME Group’s FedWatch tool indicated there was an 81.9% chance that the Fed would hike. That compares to 77.5% yesterday.

Originally published on Advisor.ca
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