Fed board member Powell says March rate hike possible

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A Federal Reserve board member on Thursday added his voice to a growing group of Fed officials who are indicating that they may raise rates in March.

Fed board member Jerome Powell said in a CNBC interview that he believed the Fed was close to achieving its targets on full employment and 2 percent inflation.

"I think the case for a rate increase in March has come together, and I do think it is on the table for discussion," he said.

Powell's comments were the latest in a series of remarks from Fed officials this week that have raised the possibility the Fed will hike rates at its March 14-15 meeting. Fed Chair Janet Yellen is scheduled to speak on the economic outlook on Friday and she could at that time decide to send a strong signal that a rate hike was coming.

On Tuesday, William Dudley, the president of the Fed's New York regional bank and a close Yellen ally, said that the case for raising rates "has become a lot more compelling." And on Wednesday night, Fed board member Lael Brainard, one of the leading voices arguing in the past to delay hikes, said she believed the case for another hike was strengthening.

"Assuming continued progress, it will likely be appropriate soon to remove additional accommodation" by raising rates, Brainard said in a speech at Harvard University. "We are closing in on full employment, inflation is moving gradually toward our target, foreign growth is on more solid footing and risks to the outlook are as close to balanced as they have been in some time."

Powell made similar points in his interview Thursday, saying, "I think we are as close to our mandates as we have been in a very long time."

The Fed boosted its key policy rate by a quarter-point to a new range of 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent at its December meeting and indicated it expected to raise rates three times in 2017, which would be a pick-up from the one-hike-per-year pace of the past two years.

Asked if the Fed might boost rates at a faster clip, possible raising four times in 2017, Powell said that he still felt that three rate hikes in 2017 "still feels about right to me" although he said the actual pace would depend on what the economy does.

Until recently, financial markets had put a low probability on a March rate hike, believing that Fed officials would want to see the size of President Donald Trump's economic stimulus program and would prefer to wait until June when more was known about Trump's plans and the chances that Congress will adopt the program of tax cuts and increased spending on the military and infrastructure projects.

The CME Group, which tracks investor sentiment on Fed rate hikes, now puts the probability of a March hike at 75 percent, up from around 20 percent a few weeks ago.

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