Fed’s Barkin says economic soft landing is ‘increasingly conceivable’

By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. central bank is “making real progress” towards taming inflation without inflicting major damage on the job market, with a hoped-for soft landing “increasingly conceivable,” Richmond Federal Reserve President Thomas Barkin said on Wednesday.

While the best-case outcome of inflation falling without a major rise in the unemployment rate is “in no way inevitable,” and could still be thrown off course, “you can see the case” developing in data that includes continued low joblessness and inflation that on a six-month basis is now below the Fed’s 2% target, Barkin told the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce in North Carolina.

“Is it settling as convincingly as the last six months would have suggested or not?” Barkin said in a question-and-answer session following his prepared remarks. “With every month that goes on we will build more conviction about that or not.”

Barkin did not provide details about his own policy expectations for the year, or when it might be appropriate for the Fed to begin reducing a policy rate that has been held steady since July in the 5.25%-5.50% range.

Fed officials at the Dec. 12-13 policy meeting indicated they would likely not need to raise rates again, and Barkin noted that “most of us forecasted rate normalization to begin sometime this year.”

A majority of Fed officials at last month’s meeting said they expected the policy rate would need to fall by at least three-quarters of a percentage point this year, with inflation continuing to decline.

The Fed will hold its next policy meeting on Jan. 30-31, with investors broadly expecting rate cuts to begin seven weeks later at the March 19-20 meeting.

Barkin, however, said risks to a soft landing remain, including that delayed impacts from current high interest rates hit harder than expected, and also that outside shocks or stickier-than-expected inflation makes a full return to the Fed’s target more difficult than anticipated.

“That’s why the potential for additional rate hikes remains on the table,” Barkin said, with the timing and pace of any rate cuts determined by whether inflation continues to fall and the economy continues to “fly smoothly … There’s no autopilot. And the data that come in this year will matter.”

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Paul Simao)