Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers Wednesday that rate hikes will not bring down oil and food prices, despite their contributing the lion's share of recent inflation gains.
In an exchange with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Powell was blunt in saying that the Fed's efforts to tamp down on higher prices with higher interest rates will not impact either category.
"Chair Powell, will gas prices go down as a result of your interest rate increase?" she asked.
"I would not think so, no," he replied.
Then Warren asked, "Will the Fed's interest rate increases bring food prices down for families?"
Powell said, "I wouldn't say so, no."
He nonetheless stressed that the Fed was equipped to tackle inflation more broadly.
"We have both the tools we need and the resolve it will take to restore price stability on behalf of American families and businesses," he said, during his semiannual testimony to Congress.
Warren and other Democratic senators pushed back against the argument that rate hikes (or increases to the Federal Funds Rate, which serves as a guidepost for the rest of the economy) were capable of bringing down the current bout of inflation that is putting the strain on U.S. consumers.
"A Fed increase won't bring down these prices, and why? Because rate hikes won't make Vladimir Putin turn his tanks around and leave Ukraine," Warren said. "Rate hikes won't break up monopolies. Rate hikes won't straighten out the supply chain or speed up ships or stop a virus that is still causing lockdowns in some parts of the world."
The exchange took place one week after the Fed announced its latest hike, bringing the benchmark rate to around 1.6 percent.
The senator also grilled Powell about the possibility that rate hikes could spur a recession, even as they fail to address essential items. "You know what’s worse than high inflation and low unemployment? It’s high inflation and a recession with millions of people out of work," Warren said. "I hope you will reconsider that before you drive this economy off a cliff."
Powell noted multiple times that it was not the Fed's intention to provoke a recession, but that it was "certainly a possibility."
He also said that while the Fed likely can't rein in oil or food prices, it does have a role to play in curbing the demand that he maintained is buoying prices across the economy.
"We're focused on the part of it that we can address," he said. "There are parts of the economy where demand exceeds supply, and that's where we think our tools can help."
Specifically, he said the Fed can help curb demand for durable goods such as automobiles, which have also contributed a large chunk of the price gains over the past year and a half. He also said higher rates could bring down asset prices, curbing overall wealth and potentially cutting investment.
In addition, Powell pointed out that financial conditions have tightened ahead of the Fed rate hikes. Mortgage rates, for instance, have shot up significantly since the Fed shifted policy, with the 30-year fixed rate crossing 6 percent last week.
Powell rebuffed a number of questions from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about the role of monopoly pricing and increased fiscal spending on inflation, stressing that they did not fall under the Fed's mandate of price stability and maximum employment.
Republicans, meanwhile, criticized the Fed for waiting too long to tighten monetary policy.
"These actions are long overdue, and monetary policy remains too loose," said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee.
What higher rates mean for workers was another hot-button issue at the hearing.
"It isn't that wages themselves are too high," said Powell. "It's that the rate of growth of wages is not consistent with 2 percent inflation over time. Of course, it's great when wages go up, and we want them to go up. We want people to get strong wage increases, but at a certain point, wages become high enough that companies start raising prices, and you wind up getting high inflation."
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), chair of the committee, said bringing down inflation shouldn't come with a "zero-sum" choice for workers.
"In a truly fair economy, people don't have to choose between two bad options, low wages or high prices," he said. "Americans want to work. They want to work with dignity."