WRAPUP 2-Powell tells markets Fed is flexible and aware of risks

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U.S. jobs growth increased at a higher rate than expected in December according to the latest data, as employers hired the most workers for 10 months and wages also rose.

"With Chairman Powell's remarks today, I would say they will do just one hike or maybe no hikes this year", said Sung Won Sohn, chief economist at SS Economics.

Trump has for months criticized the Fed chief for raising rates, and Bloomberg News reported December 21 that the president had discussed firing Powell.

Since mid-December, investors have been expressing disagreement with Powell's assessment of the economy, saying the Fed had it all wrong and that the economy was weakening.

Powell's willingness to be flexible on interest rates was welcome news to investors, many of whom anxious that Fed chair risked cutting off the current economic expansion by continuing to raise interest rates despite signs the US economy was cooling off a little.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average on Friday jumped to a fresh peak as a trio of bankers, headlined by current Chairman Jerome Powell, underscored the health of the US economy but also expressed an attentiveness to a market that has grown fragile amid a spate of interest-rate increases. The Federal Reserve also indicated that it would press ahead with plans for more interest rate hikes in 2019. A third Fed president, Thomas Barkin of Richmond, said he is hearing more concerns about economic risks and trade.

The Fed, which hiked benchmark US interest rates four times previous year including in December, is however not on a preset path and could pause policy tightening as it did in 2016 when global growth concerns led to doubts about the USA economic recovery, he said.

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Traders said Powell's comments were perceived as dovish because he said the Fed had no preset path for policy and could be patient when it comes to future interest rate hikes.

The Fed chairman, responding to a question about what he would do if Trump asked him to step down, said he would not resign.

Echoing a more sympathetic tone recently espoused by some of his colleagues, Powell said the Fed was "listening" to markets and would balance the steady flow of strong economic data against the array of risks - from slowing global growth to worries about the U.S. The Fed has raised interest rates nine times since the end of 2015.

"We wouldn't hesitate to change it and that would include the balance sheet". But some investors have anxious that that process could push long-term rates higher at a time when the economy was slowing.

Powell said he did not think the latter was having much impact on markets, but that the strategy would be changed if it started interfering with the bank's broader goals of maintaining strong employment and stable inflation.

USA media reported that Trump has been asking his advisers whether he could remove Powell from the post.

Powell told the panel in Atlanta that he has not received any communications from the White House so far and has not scheduled a meeting with Trump.