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NASHVILLE, Tenn. June 23 (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve should wait on any further rate increases until it is clear inflation is reliably heading to the Fed's 2 percent target, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said on Friday, highlighting the central bank's struggle over how to weigh a recent slip in the rate of price increases.
"Recent inflation data have surprised to the downside and call into question the idea that U.S. inflation is reliably returning toward target," Bullard said at an Illinois Bankers Association conference. "The Fed can wait and see how the economy develops before making any further adjustments to the policy rate."
The Fed raised rates at its meeting last week with only one dissenting vote. But the policy statement flagged concern over a recent fall in the Fed's preferred measure of inflation to 1.5 percent, and Fed officials since then have appeared split between those worried the trend may persist and those who feel the Fed needs to tighten still-loose monetary policy as a precaution.
The central bank is also debating how to synchronize its next rate increase with its plan to begin reducing its $4 trillion in asset holdings, a step that at the margins could raise market interest rates.
Bullard, who regards the economy as stuck in a low-growth rut, said he sees little reason to rush the process. Even though a low unemployment rate of 4.3 percent would, in theory, lead to higher inflation and provide a reason for raising rates now, Bullard said there is little evidence that is going to happen anytime soon.
Is U.S. inflation "about to increase substantially? The short answer is no, based on current estimates of the relationship between unemployment and inflation," Bullard said.
Bullard does not currently vote on the Fed's policy-setting committee. He has argued that the Fed should not raise rates any more until it is clear the economy has shifted to a higher growth, higher inflation "regime." (Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Andrea Ricci)