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Fed“s Waller calls Q3 US GDP growth a “blowout,“ but newer data suggest slowdown


Federal Reserve Governor Christopher Waller poses before a speech at the San Francisco Fed, in San Francisco, California, U.S., March 31, 2023. REUTERS/Ann Saphir/File Photo

Third-quarter U.S. economic growth, at an annualized 4.9% rate, was a “blowout” performance that warrants watching as the Federal Reserve considers its next policy moves, Fed Governor Christopher Waller said on Tuesday, while a colleague made an explicit call for another interest rate hike.

“This was an outstanding quarter … this big blowout number,” Waller told an economic data seminar at the St. Louis Fed. In looking at the components of U.S. output, “everything was booming. So this is something we are keeping a very close eye on when we think about policy going forward.”

Waller, an ardent advocate of aggressive Fed rate hikes to battle high inflation, did not include a policy recommendation in his remarks, and his presentation also noted signs that job growth was slowing, and what he called the “earthquake” that has taken place in the form of higher and potentially growth-dimming long-term bond yields.

But in comments to the Ohio Bankers League, Fed Governor Michelle Bowman said she took the recent GDP number as evidence the economy not only “remained strong,” but may have gained speed and require a higher Fed policy rate.

“I continue to expect that we will need to increase the federal funds rate further,” Bowman said.

Explicit endorsements for higher rates have become rarer among Fed officials since July, when the Fed raised the benchmark rate by a quarter point, to the current 5.25% to 5.5% range, in what many analysts expect will prove the last move in a monetary tightening cycle that began in March of 2022.

Indeed more recent data suggest the outsized pace of growth in the July-September period may prove an outlier for the year, with manufacturing and job growth both cooling in October, a bank loan officers survey showing continued credit tightening and a drop in loan demand in recent months, and a New York Fed report on Tuesday noting a rise in consumer loan delinquencies.

That combination of data potentially shows the sort of economic slowing that Fed officials have expected as the sometimes slow-moving impact of central bank interest rate hikes is felt more broadly.

Based on incoming economic data, the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow model suggests fourth-quarter gross domestic product will grow at an annualized rate of just 2.1%, a sharp drop from the third-quarter reading and edging towards a pace Fed officials might view as allowing inflation to continue slowing to their 2% target. By the Fed’s preferred personal consumption expenditures price index inflation was 3.4% as of September.

Many economists expect the Fed to hold interest rates steady at the upcoming Dec. 12-13 policy meeting, in part due to that anticipated slowdown and the ongoing tightening of borrowing and credit conditions.

In comments on Monday, Fed Governor Lisa Cook took particular note of rising debt stress. While it was not broadly apparent among “resilient” U.S. households, she said, “we are seeing emerging signs of stress for households with lower credit scores, and individual borrowers may struggle with debt burdens in the face of economic hardships,” a dynamic that at the margin will begin to trim consumer spending and, in the extreme, could make banks even more reluctant to lend.

After flagging the breakneck growth of the third quarter, Waller also noted reasons to think the U.S. may be making a further turn away from the excesses that defined the pandemic years.

After a run of “amazing” job growth, for example, “the labor market is cooling a bit … It’s clearly calming down,” with recent employment gains more in line with the levels seen before the coronavirus pandemic, Waller said.

The Fed is in the process of weighing that and other data to determine whether to hike the benchmark policy rate again.

Against the economic growth seen in recent months, the rise in long-term bond yields has led some Fed officials to feel that credit conditions may now be tight enough without any further rate hikes of their own.

In comments to CNBC on Tuesday, Chicago Fed President Austan Goolsbee noted that inflation has been slowing, and that the rise in market-based interest rates, “if … sustained at high levels” most likely represents a tightening of credit for families and businesses.

“We have got to take that into account … We should expect to see that, with a lag, working its way through the economy. So we’re all paying attention and trying to figure out what the driver is,” Goolsbee said.

However neither Goolsbee nor Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari, who spoke to Bloomberg Television on Tuesday, ruled out further Fed rate increases.

Noting, as Waller did, the recent “hot” readings on economic activity, Kashkari said “that makes me question if policy is as tight as we assume it currently is.”

“If you saw inflation tick back up and you saw continued very strong economic activity in the real side of the economy, that would tell me we might need to do more,” Kashkari added.

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