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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve sent a strong signal on Thursday that it will raise interest rates this month and soon begin shedding some of its $4.5 trillion in bond holdings, despite some weak recent U.S. inflation readings.
Fed Governor Jerome Powell, an influential policymaker and among the last to speak publicly before a mid-June policy meeting, said the U.S. economy was "healthy" and the central bank should continue to edge toward a more normal footing after nearly a decade of crisis-era stimulus.
"While the recent performance of the labor market might warrant a faster pace of tightening, inflation has been below target for five years and has moved up only slowly toward 2 percent, which argues for continued patience, especially if that progress slows or stalls," Powell, one of four governors at the Fed Board, told an audience at the Economic Club of New York.
"If the economy performs about as expected, I would view it as appropriate to continue to gradually raise rates," he added without mentioning the June 13-14 meeting, when the Fed is widely expected to raise rates for the third time in six months.
Separately, Powell said in an interview with CNBC that he expects a total of three interest rate increases this year, including the hike already enacted in March. "I could see a couple more rate increases, which is basically a total of three," he said.
Two months of weaker-than-expected price readings have spurred concern that the Fed, which has a 2 percent inflation target, could delay two more planned rate hikes this year. Its preferred measure was 1.5 percent in April.
Powell said the gradual inflation rise "appears to have paused" due in part to temporary factors, "and there are good reasons to expect that inflation will resume its gradual rise."
"Today, the economy is as close to our assigned goals as it has been for many years," he said at the Economic Club of New York, reinforcing similarly upbeat remarks on Tuesday in New York by Fed Governor Lael Brainard.
Turning to the plan to begin shedding bonds later this year, which risks a surge in market yields if the Fed surprises investors, Powell said the market's so-far muted response "suggests that there need not be a major reaction" when the process begins.
"If changes to reinvestment policy do tighten financial conditions more than anticipated, then I expect that the (Fed) would take that into account," he said, nodding to the possibility that rate hikes could be delayed in that case.
Powell pointed to studies suggesting the Fed could ultimately shrink the portfolio to between $2.4 trillion and $2.9 trillion after several years.
Reporting by Jonathan Spicer; Additional reporting in Washington by Pete Schroeder and Jason Lange; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bernadette Baum