Fed seen hiking policy rate above 5% as hiring surges

The Federal Reserve building is seen in Washington, DC
The Federal Reserve building is seen in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2022. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

Feb 3 (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Reserve is likely to need at least two more interest-rate hikes, lifting the benchmark rate to above 5%, to slow an unexpectedly strong labor market seen as contributing to high inflation.

That was the betting in financial markets on Friday after the U.S. Labor Department reported employers added more than half a million jobs last month, far more than expected, and the unemployment rate fell to 3.4%, the lowest in more than 50 years.

The Fed earlier this week increased its benchmark rate by a quarter-of-a-percentage-point to 4.5%-4.75%. Fed Chair Jerome Powell said that with the labor market still tight he expects to need "ongoing" increases to get monetary policy "sufficiently restrictive" to engineer a more balanced job market and bring down too-high inflation.

Interest-rate futures prices, initially skeptical of that view, now reflect that expectation, with a better than even chance seen that the Fed will continue get its policy rate to the 5%-5.25% range by June, if not by May.

Financial markets had earlier heard Powell's repeated references to the start of a disinflationary trend as signaling that just one more rate hike, in March, could suffice.

"This is the kind of report that you want to see when coming out of a recession to signal strength in the economy, not when the futures market is looking at the Fed finishing its rate hike cycle," said Quincy Krosby, chief global strategist at LPL Financial.

Traders still expect the Fed to cut rates later in the year, despite Powell saying he does not expect inflation to fall fast enough to allow such a thing.

The Fed targets 2% inflation, now running at 5% by the Fed's preferred measure, the personal consumption expenditures price index.

Friday's Labor Department report did show slower growth in average hourly earnings to a 4.4% pace, from an upwardly revised 4.8% in December.

"While the Fed welcomes any signs of easing wage pressures, the pace of growth in average hourly earnings is still too strong to help lower inflation," Oxford Economics' Ryan Sweet wrote.

Reporting by Ann Saphir with reporting by Ankika Biswas, Caroline Valetkevitch, Lindsay Dunsmuir, Lucia Mutikani Editiing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Chizu Nomiyama

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