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John C. Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said the latest variant of the coronavirus could prolong the bottlenecks and shortages that have caused inflation to run hotter than expected, and is a risk Fed officials will assess as they “grapple” with how quickly to remove economic support.
It is still too soon to know how the Omicron variant, which public health officials in southern Africa identified just last week, will affect the economy, Mr. Williams said Tuesday in an interview with The New York Times. But if the new version of the virus leads to another wave of infections, it could exacerbate the disruptions that have caused prices to rise at their fastest pace in three decades.
“Clearly, it adds a lot of uncertainty to the outlook,” Mr. Williams said of the new variant. He later added that a risk with the new variant is that it “will continue that excess demand in the areas that don’t have capacity, and will stall the recovery in the areas where we actually have the capacity.”
That, he said, would “mean a somewhat slower rebound overall” and “also does increase those inflationary pressures, in those areas that are in high demand.”
Mr. Williams’s comments are the latest indication that policymakers are growing more concerned about inflation and are weighing how to respond. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, signaled on Tuesday that the central bank could move to withdraw economic support more quickly than it initially expected and suggested that such a decision could come as soon as the Fed’s December meeting.
The Fed had been buying $120 billion in government-backed securities each month throughout much of the pandemic to bolster the economy by keeping money flowing in financial markets. In November, officials announced plans to wind down that program gradually through the end of the year and the first half of 2022, a process known as “tapering.” But Mr. Powell indicated on Tuesday that the central bank could wrap up its bond-buying more quickly.
Mr. Williams, who is vice chair of the Fed’s policymaking Open Market Committee and is a top adviser to Mr. Powell, did not explicitly endorse a faster tapering process, saying that “there’s a lot to learn and digest and think about coming up to the next meeting.”
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But he emphasized that the economy had rebounded more strongly this year than he and other officials had been expecting, and said the unemployment rate had fallen quickly. That economic strengthening at a moment of high inflation may warrant less Fed support, he said.
“The question is: Would it make sense to end those purchases somewhat earlier, by maybe a few months, given how strong the economy is?” he said. “That’s a decision, discussion, I expect we’ll have to grapple with.”
Inflation has proved a thornier problem than the Fed and most private-sector economists predicted earlier this year. In March, Fed officials said they expected their preferred inflation measure to show consumer prices rising at 2.4 percent at the end of 2021; by September, they had revised that forecast to 4.2 percent.
That’s likely to increase further. The central bank’s preferred inflation gauge climbed 5 percent in its most recent reading. Policymakers are closely watching to see what happens in a Consumer Price Index report set for release on Dec. 10, just before the Fed’s meeting on Dec. 14 and 15.
Mr. Williams acknowledged that inflation had proved stronger and more lasting than he initially expected. But he said the error wasn’t the result of a misunderstanding of how the economy works; rather, it was his failure to anticipate the resurgence of the pandemic itself. Mr. Powell made similar comments in his testimony before the Senate on Tuesday.
The spread of the Delta variant over the summer delayed the return of workers to the labor force by disrupting child care and making some people nervous to return to in-person work. It also contributed to supply-chain issues by causing a new round of factory shutdowns in some parts of the world and by extending the pandemic-era shift in consumer spending away from services and toward goods.
“These are all things that are driven — I think in large part, not totally, but in large part — to Covid, and the ability so far for us to get control of that,” he said. “This is just lasting a lot longer than expected.”
The new variant, Mr. Williams added, “has that potential to just extend this process we’ve been going through.”
If the Omicron variant further delays the return of workers and the easing of supply shortages, that could lead to more and longer-lasting inflation. But a new wave of virus cases could also hurt the demand side of the economy, leading people to spend less at restaurants and movie theaters and provoking a new wave of layoffs.
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That would put the Fed in a difficult position, forcing it to choose between withdrawing support for the economy in the face of rising unemployment and allowing inflation to accelerate unchecked.
Mr. Powell has at times acknowledged that the two parts of the Fed’s job — fostering maximum employment and maintaining stable prices — could be coming into tension. He nodded to the conflict again Tuesday, while emphasizing that controlling inflation is a critical goal.
“To get back to the kind of great labor market we had before the pandemic, we’re going to need a long expansion,” Mr. Powell said. “To get that, we’re going to need price stability.”
Mr. Williams said he was confident the Fed could chart a course that would allow the labor market to continue to improve while simultaneously reining in inflation.
“How you deal with those trade-offs is something that we’ve studied for a long time and we have experience with,” he said. He added that he has seen little evidence so far that consumers and businesses have come to expect higher inflation to last long term — a chief worry for the Fed, because a lasting shift in expectations could make inflation harder for policymakers to control.
“If inflation stays too high for too long, that will eventually seep into people’s longer-term inflation expectations,” he said.
Fed officials should know more about the Omicron variant by the time they hold their meeting in mid-December. They will also have a better read on the state of the economy by then. On Friday, the Labor Department will release its monthly report on jobs and unemployment, and the update on inflation will also offer new evidence.
But Mr. Williams said the longer-run effects of the pandemic were harder to gauge. The brief, pre-Delta surge in activity over the summer suggests that many Americans are eager to return to their old ways of in-person socializing, he said. But other shifts around work could prove more lasting, which could affect the economy in hard-to-predict ways.
“Now that we’ve learned to live this way, are we going to go back to the old ways?” he asked. “I have to say, I don’t know.”
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