Powell Downplays Inflation Risks as Yellen Foreshadows Future Spending

The economy is healing, the nation’s top two economic officials told lawmakers on Tuesday, but workers and businesses will need continued government support to rebound from the pandemic — and one of the officials, Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, batted back concerns that vigorous policy help could stoke inflation.

Mr. Powell testified Tuesday before the House Financial Services committee alongside Janet L. Yellen, his predecessor at the Fed and now the Treasury secretary, in their first side-by-side appearance in their current roles. In hopes of fueling a rapid rebound in spending and hiring, the government has been spending aggressively and the Fed is keeping borrowing costs at rock bottom.

That all-in approach has helped to avert the most dire potential economic outcomes, Mr. Powell told lawmakers, and it has not created grave inflation risks in the process.

Asked whether President Biden’s recently passed $1.9 trillion spending package to combat the virus could cause prices to shoot higher — especially as the administration eyes plans to spend as much as $3 trillion more on an infrastructure package — Mr. Powell said the Fed did not fear a jump in inflation.

“We do expect that inflation will move up over the course of this year,” he said, adding that some of the rise would be procedural as low readings from March and April of last year dropped out of the data, and part of it might be driven by a recovery in demand.

“Our best view is that the effect on inflation will be neither particularly large nor persistent,” he said. And if it does pick up in a more concerning way, “we have the tools to deal with that,” he added.

Ms. Yellen faced questions about President Biden’s economic relief legislation, including Treasury’s role in putting it into action, as well as the administration’s plans to propose another big spending package on infrastructure, which could be financed in part by tax increases.

She was pressed by Republican lawmakers about how higher taxes would affect consumers and small businesses. “I think a package that consists of investments in people, investments in infrastructure, will help to create good jobs in the American economy,” Ms. Yellen replied, “and changes in the tax structure will help to pay for those programs.”

And she argued that tax increases would be necessary to back up the package.

“We do need to raise revenues in a fair way to support the spending that this economy needs to be competitive and productive,” she said.

Ms. Yellen’s Treasury is in charge of executing Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic relief legislation, and has been racing to distribute $1,400 checks to millions of Americans. That is posing a test for Ms. Yellen’s team, which is not yet fully in place.

Ms. Yellen pushed hard for a robust fiscal relief package. In her opening statement, she described the rescue legislation as precisely what the economy needed.

“With the passage of the rescue plan, I am confident that people will reach the other side of this pandemic with the foundations of their lives intact,” Ms. Yellen said. “And I believe they will be met there by a growing economy. In fact, I think we may see a return to full employment next year.”

Mr. Powell declined to weigh in on the new infrastructure idea, but he did say that the government’s broad response to the coronavirus pandemic had helped to keep a worst-case economic disaster from playing out.

Frequently Asked Questions About the New Stimulus Package

The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.

Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more

This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.

There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.

The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.

“While the economic fallout has been real and widespread, the worst was avoided by swift and vigorous action,” he said.

Mr. Powell and Ms. Yellen faced a volley of questions on how financial regulators should deal with climate change risks. Republicans have expressed concern that the Fed’s growing attention to climate-related issues in its role as a bank overseer could end up making it harder or more expensive for carbon-heavy companies to get loans.

“It’s really very early days in trying to understand what all of this means,” Mr. Powell said, noting that many large banks and large industrial companies were already thinking about and beginning to disclose how climate might affect them over time. “We have a job,” he said, “which is to ensure that the institutions we regulate are resilient to the risks that they’re running.”

Separately on Tuesday, Lael Brainard, an influential Fed governor, announced that the Fed was establishing a Financial Stability Climate Committee “to identify, assess and address” climate-related risks to financial stability.

The new body will approach its task in a way that “considers the potential for complex interactions across the financial system,” Ms. Brainard said, rather than just the risks to individual companies.

That’s the kind of oversight some lawmakers fear.

“Linking hypothetical climate scenarios to risks to the entire financial system seems to me highly speculative,” Representative Andy Barr, a Republican from Kentucky, told Mr. Powell and Ms. Yellen during the Tuesday hearing.