Ex-Atlanta Fed president says central bankers may hike rates this year

The Federal Reserve may hike interest rates one or two times this year as a buffer for the next economic downturn, former Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart contended Thursday.

Central bankers will likely be on hold until mid-year before they’ll have to reevaluate inflation data, said Lockhart, who served as president of the Atlanta Fed for 10 years from 2007 to 2017.

“I do believe a number of the members of the committee would still like to get one or two moves in closer to the mid-point of the neutral range and, without saying it, build more cushion for the next downturn,” he added in a “Squawk Box” interview.

The Fed opted not to raise rates from a range between 2.25 percent and 2.5 percent during its policy meeting this week, and it pledged that future moves would be done patiently.

In reaction, stocks surged Wednesday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average closing 25,000 for the first time since Dec. 4. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq posted their highest closes since Dec. 6. The market has decided not to price in any Fed rate increases this year.

After the fourth Fed rate hike of 2018 in December, Chairman Jerome Powell did leave the door open to other options in 2019, emphasizing “data dependency.” However, at the time, the Fed projected two more rate increases this year.

On Jan. 4, Powell said in a speech that Fed policymakers “will be patient” on rates given continued muted inflation.

The discussion of “building ammunition” for the next downturn would not be something for the Fed to discuss publicly, Lockhart said. “You’ll sound like you’re raising rates in order to cut rates.”

President Donald Trump has been a vocal critic of the Fed’s policies under Powell, arguing the central bank’s path on rates could hurt the economy.

For his part, Powell said Wednesday the central bank did not take “political considerations” into account when deciding to take a much more cautious rate approach.

— CNBC’s
Jeff Cox
contributed to this report.