Powell said the current conditions warrant the gradual approach.
“The economy is strong. Inflation is near our 2 percent objective, and most people who want a job are finding one,” he said. “My colleagues and I are carefully monitoring incoming data, and we are setting policy to do what monetary policy can do to support continued growth, a strong labor market, and inflation near 2 percent.”
Much of the speech was given to a history of Fed actions taken from around the time of the inflation boom in the 1970s. Policymakers, he said, have learned over the years that vigilant action needs to be taken to make sure inflation and unemployment are at healthy levels.
When it comes to inflation in particular, Powell said the Fed has learned that inflation sometimes shows up in financial markets before general price pressures. History has shown that “doing too little comes with higher costs than doing too much” when trying to control inflation.
Should inflation expectations become unanchored in either direction, the Fed would “do whatever it takes” to control the problem, he said.
More broadly, though, Powell said current conditions don’t suggest an issue with inflation expectations. The Fed targets 2 percent as a healthy level, and the current data suggest the economy is at or around that level. However, Powell said he doesn’t see inflation moving materially higher. in an economy that he said is performing well.
“With solid household and business confidence, healthy levels of job creation, rising incomes, and fiscal stimulus arriving, there is good reason to expect that this strong performance will continue,” he said.
The Fed also has been in the news lately as President Donald Trump has leveled criticism against it for continuing to raise rates.
Powell did not mention the president’s remarks in his speech, though a few other Fed officials have told CNBC they are committed to maintaining independence from political pressures.