Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is hardly a month on the job and the pressure is already building.
On Tuesday, Feb. 27, the newly minted chairman will appear in front of Congress to present his first semiannual monetary policy update. Powell appears in front of the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday followed by the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday, March 1.
The Fed released Powell's prepared remarks ahead of his appearance before Congress on Tuesday. In the remarks, Powell called for "further gradual increases in the federal funds rate," but was not specific in how many rate hikes the Fed expects.
Wall Street has watched carefully for any signals as to the Fed's intended pace for rate hikes under Powell's leadership. The Fed had previously projected three rate hikes this year and two more in 2019.
In the prepared remarks, Powell detailed the monetary policy moves the Fed took in the second half of last year, namely increasing the federal funds rate by 0.25% in December and initiating balance sheet normalization in October. Powell said the balance sheet trimming has "been proceeding smoothly."
"These interest rate and balance sheet actions reflect the Committee's view that gradually reducing monetary policy accommodation will sustain a strong labor market while fostering a return of inflation to 2%," Powell said.
Looking ahead, Powell said many of the economic factors that had previously been headwinds have morphed into tailwinds. Fiscal policy has become "more stimulative" while foreign demand for U.S. exports is on a "firmer trajectory."
"In gauging the appropriate path for monetary policy over the next few years, the FOMC will continue to strike a balance between avoiding an overheated economy and bringing PCE price inflation to 2% on a sustained basis," Powell wrote, returning to the Fed's mandates.
"In the FOMC's view, further gradual increases in the federal funds rate will best promote attainment of both of our objectives," Powell wrote. "As always, the path of monetary policy will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data."
Powell also noted that inflation has been "low and stable," running below the 2% Fed inflation mandate.
"We continue to view some of the shortfall in inflation last year as likely reflecting transitory influences that we do not expect will repeat; consistent with this view, the monthly readings were a little higher toward the end of the year than in earlier months," Powell added.
Powell also touted economic gains early in his statement. He noted that the U.S. economy grew at a "solid pace" in the back half of 2017 and continued as such into 2018.
Monthly job gains averaged 179,000 from July through December, Powell noted, and payrolls rose an additional 200,000 in January.
"This pace of job growth was sufficient to push the unemployment rate down to 4.1%, about 3/4 percentage point lower than a year earlier and the lowest level since December 2000," he added.
Powell also explained that the labor participation rate has not changed very much, signaling job market strength despite downward pressure retiring Baby Boomers have put on the participation rate.
"After easing substantially during 2017, financial conditions in the United States have reversed some of that easing. At this point, we do not see these developments as weighing heavily on the outlook for economic activity, the labor market, and inflation. Indeed, the economic outlook remains strong," Powell said.
Under previous chairs Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke, the stock market didn't move very dramatically following two-day testimonies.
Stocks were little changed in futures trading Tuesday morning after trending lower earlier. Dow Jones Industrial Average futures were down 0.17%, S&P 500 futures decreased 0.20% and Nasdaq futures lost 0.13%.