Federal Reserve Not Likely to Change Course After Ukraine Invasion

on Feb24
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Federal Reserve officials are turning a wary eye to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though several have signaled in recent days that geopolitical tensions are unlikely to keep them from pulling back their support for the U.S. economy at a time when the job market is booming and prices are climbing rapidly.

Stock indexes are swooning and the price of key commodities — including oil and gas — have risen sharply and could continue to rise as Russia, a major producer, responds to American and European sanctions.

That makes the invasion a complicated risk for the Fed: On one hand, its fallout is likely to further push up price inflation, which is already running at its fastest pace in 40 years. On the other, it could weigh on growth if stock prices continue to plummet and nervous consumers in Europe and the United States pull back from spending.

The magnitude of the potential economic hit is far from certain, and for now, central bank officials have signaled that they will remain on track to raise interest rates starting next month, a policy move that will make borrowing money more expensive and cool down the economy.

“I see the geopolitical situation, unless it would deteriorate substantially, as part of the larger uncertainty that we face in the United States and our U.S. economy,” Mary C. Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. “We’ll have to navigate that as we go forward.”

Ms. Daly said that she did not “see anything right now” that would disrupt the Fed’s plan to lift interest rates.

Raphael Bostic, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, said during an event on Tuesday that the situation in Ukraine represented a “downward risk” to growth, but suggested he still supported withdrawing some of the Fed’s help from the economy.

Both Mr. Bostic and Ms. Daly reiterated on Thursday that they expected it would be appropriate to remove support. Thomas Barkin, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, said during an appearance Thursday that “time will tell” if the policy path needs to adjust.

Some analysts are warning that the fallout of the conflict could be meaningful.

“Normally geopolitical crises ultimately turn out to be a fade for financial markets and a buying opportunity for investors willing to look past the headlines,” Krishna Guha at Evercore ISI wrote in a research note Thursday morning. “We are very wary of taking that line today.”

Mr. Guha noted that the invasion could disrupt the post-Cold War world order and warned that the jump in energy prices and fallout from sanctions “will complicate the ability of central banks on both sides of the Atlantic to engineer a soft landing from the pandemic inflation surge.”

Economists have been warning that a “soft landing” — in which central banks guide the economy onto a sustainable path without causing a recession — might be difficult to achieve at a time when prices have taken off and monetary policies across much of Europe and North America may need to readjust substantially.

“The shock of war adds to the enormous challenges facing central banks worldwide,” Isabel Schnabel, an executive board member at the European Central Bank, said during a Bank of England event on Thursday. She added that policymakers are monitoring the situation in Ukraine “very closely.”

Inflation is high around much of the world, and though it is slightly less pronounced in Europe, and E.C.B. policymakers are reacting more slowly to it than some of their global counterparts, recent high readings there have prompted some officials to edge toward policy changes.

In America, the Fed has sometimes reacted to global problems by cutting borrowing costs, making money cheaper and easier to obtain, rather than by lifting interest rates and making credit conditions tighter. But economists said this time was likely to be different.

“The current situation is different from past episodes when geopolitical events led the Fed to delay tightening or ease because inflation risk has created a stronger and more urgent reason for the Fed to tighten today,” researchers at Goldman Sachs wrote in an analysis note.

Plus, with wages rising and consumers increasingly expecting high inflation in the coming years, the fact that the conflict has the potential to further elevate prices could strike the central bank as problematic.

“Further increases in commodity prices might be more worrisome than usual,” they wrote.

Some economists warned that the Russian invasion in some ways echoed the inflationary episode of the 1970s: Back then, price increases were already rapid, and a sharp oil price increase pushed inflation up further and made it stick around. The Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 and the Iranian revolution of 1979 both contributed to an oil supply shortage.

“There is something eerily reminiscent of the 1970s and the surge in energy prices associated with Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine,” Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, wrote on Twitter Thursday. “It couldn’t happen at a worse time as it is pouring fuel over an already kindled fire of inflation.”

Economists have released varying estimates of how much an oil price shock could bolster inflation in the coming months.

If oil increases to $120 per barrel by the end of February, past the $95 mark it hovered around last week, inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index could climb close to 9 percent in the next couple of months, instead of a projected peak of a little below 8 percent, said Alan Detmeister, an economist at UBS who formerly led the prices and wages section at the Fed.

The Goldman researchers said that as a rule of thumb, a $10 per barrel increase in the price of oil would increase headline inflation in the United States by about a fifth of a percentage point, and lowers gross domestic product growth by just under 0.1 percentage point.

“The growth hit could be somewhat larger if geopolitical risk tightens financial conditions materially and increases uncertainty for businesses,” they wrote.

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