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Yellen Says Higher-for-Longer Scenario Is ‘By No Means a Given’

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(Bloomberg) — Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said a surprisingly resilient US economy has prompted investors to question what it will take to bring inflation down, but she cast doubt on whether that would force interest rates to stay elevated for a long period.

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“People are trying to figure out exactly what it’s going to take to keep inflation moving down,” Yellen said Tuesday in a moderated discussion at the Fortune CEO Initiative conference in Washington. “And the economic resilience that they see maybe suggest higher for longer, but we’ll see. I think it’s by no means a given.”

Yellen also said that it’s possible that higher rates of investment spending — such as on the green-energy transition — could imply higher interest rates over the longer haul. At the same time, the structural forces that held rates down in recent decades — such as demographic trends — remain “alive and well.”

“The answer is, I don’t know,” whether bond yields will stay high over the longer run, Yellen said. “It’s a great question and it’s one that’s very much on my and the administration’s minds.”

Yellen also said that it’s critical to maintain a “sustainable fiscal policy.” She said the current level of debt is manageable — as measured by how much the US spends each year to finance the federal debt as a share of gross domestic product, and adjusted for inflation. But she also indicated that higher long-term rates could pose a threat.

“The forecast we’ve made assumes that interest rates will rise toward more normal levels, but we are seeing a pretty significant increase in nominal” rates, she said.

Yellen also said that she’s “very optimistic” about the outlook for the US economy.

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“Consumer spending remains strong, investment spending is solid” and the housing market has stabilized and “seems to be moving up,” she said. “Short term inflation is coming down in the context of an extremely strong labor market,” she also said.

Yellen’s comments come just a couple of days after a last-minute deal was struck to avoid a government shutdown, something the Treasury chief had warned could threaten the economic outlook.

She said that, now, “it’s urgent that Congress allocate funds for Ukraine — that hasn’t been done. That’s really our focus.”

Yellen declined to comment on the battle for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to retain his post.

(Updates with further comments on interest rates, starting in headline.)

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