St. Louis Fed's Bullard says rates already near neutral, no more raises needed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard on Friday spelled out the case against any further interest rate increases, saying rates may already have reached a “neutral” level that is no longer stimulating the economy.

FILE PHOTO: St. Louis Fed President James Bullard speaks about the U.S. economy during an interview in New York, NY, U.S., February 26, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

Continuing to raise rates as his colleagues intend, he said, risks nipping business investment that might follow the recent corporate tax cut, upset healthy conditions in the labor market, and leave inflation expectations short of the central bank’s goal.

“We should be opening the champagne here,” not raising interest rates with unemployment low and inflation in no seeming danger of accelerating, Bullard said in remarks to the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce in Springfield, Mo. “The economy is operating quite well right now.”

Bullard has made a series of arguments in recent years for halting further rate increases until it is clear that inflation, growth and market interest rates have shifted to a higher, more dynamic “regime.”

His colleagues have proceeded to gradually raise rates nonetheless. Currently they expect to do so two more times this year and many economists and analysts argue they will likely add an additional quarter-point increase to their forecast for this year. They cite the impact of burgeoning federal deficits and a recent tax cut are felt in an economy with low unemployment and inflation near the Fed’s two percent target.

Bullard, who is not a voting member of the Fed’s policy committee this year, said he felt the central bank may be moving too fast.

While inflation now appears close to 2 percent, Bullard said his estimate of market-based inflation expectations show that investors “believe there is currently little inflationary pressure in the U.S.”

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Raising rates in that environment could undermine trust that the Fed intends to reach and maintain its 2 percent target.

While trade tensions have introduced some uncertainty to the outlook, the overall picture is strong, and the Fed should be cautious not to disrupt it, he said.

Businesses be on the cusp of investing more, he said, and job markets in a state where businesses are facing choices between paying more to workers or spending more on capital to raise productivity.

“This is an equilibrium process, not an inflationary one,” Bullard said, and “it is not necessary to disrupt” it with higher interest rates.

Editing by Chizu Nomiyama