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The Fed says it'll keep raising interest rates until inflation goes down

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Federal Reserve raised interest rates by three-quarters of a percentage point yesterday. It's the latest of several moves designed to bring down inflation. And longtime Fed watcher David Wessel joins us. He directs the Hutchins Center at the Brookings Institution. David, good morning.

DAVID WESSEL: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So not long ago, rates were around zero. Now they're 3.75% Why?

WESSEL: Well, the Fed is playing catch-up. Inflation has proved much more persistent than it had hoped and expected. It wants to drive inflation down before inflationary psychology takes hold and we all begin expecting 6-, 7-, 8% inflation. So even though some prices are falling, notably the price of gasoline, the latest data suggests that inflation is infecting almost every part of the U.S. economy, and the Fed is responding the only way it knows how - raising interest rates to increase the cost of borrowing so there's less spending, slowing overall demand to match the available supply. Here's how the Fed chair, Jay Powell, put it at a press conference yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEROME POWELL: We are focused on the thing I started with it, which is getting inflation back down to 2%. We can't fail to do that. If we were to fail to do that, that would be the thing that would be most painful for the people that we serve. So for now, that has to be our overarching focus.

INSKEEP: How much more are they going to have to push up rates in order to get inflation under control?

WESSEL: Well, they think a lot. The Fed official's projections issued yesterday foresee another one percentage point or one-and-a-quarter percentage point interest rates before the end of this year and further increases in 2023. Jay Powell repeatedly talked about the need for what he called restrictive monetary policy. So he used the word 11 times in his press conference. And that means raising interest rates high enough to reduce the demand for things, demand for services and demand for workers. Basically, the Fed thinks the economy is growing too fast, and it's hitting the brakes. And interestingly, central banks around the world are doing the same - Europe, Switzerland. Just today, the United Kingdom, the Bank of England, raised interest rates.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about the Fed situation here. In the past, they had a mandate to hold down inflation, which means if they had to choke off the economy and drive us into a recession, well, that was their job, and they were going to do that. They now have this dual mandate - hold down inflation, also try to hold up employment. Are they willing still to push us into recession, and do they have to?

WESSEL: So you're right, the Fed has had a dual mandate for years - maximum employment and price stability. And right now they are saying we think we need to focus on the price stability goal. They are saying we want to slow the economy so much that unemployment will rise. In fact, they projected that unemployment, which is now at a very low historically 3.7%, is going to go to 4.5% next year. That would mean they expect that they will have a million more unemployed workers next year than we have now. They think this is the price of getting inflation down. And Jay Powell was explicit. This is going to be painful.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should be explicit about who will have the pain. Workers have been able to demand more raises, sometimes easily change jobs. That would become more difficult under this scenario.

WESSEL: Absolutely. That's part of the Fed plan. That's how the Fed works. The housing market's taking a hit. Mortgage rates have already doubled from 3% to 6%. And so the Fed is basically saying that economy is growing too fast. That's pushing up prices. Our job is to get it down. That's what the Congress has told us to do.

INSKEEP: David, thanks so much for your insight. It's always a pleasure talking with you.

WESSEL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.