WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said higher interest rates might be needed to keep the economy from overheating given the large investments that the Biden administration is proposing to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and remake its labor force.
The comments, broadcast online on Tuesday at The Atlantic’s Future Economy Summit, come amid heightened concern from some economists and businesses that the United States is in for a period of higher inflation as stimulus money flows through the economy and consumers begin spending again.
The Treasury secretary has no role in setting interest rate policies. That is the purview of the Federal Reserve, which is independent from the White House.
But the words of Ms. Yellen, a former Fed chair, carry substantial weight, and her comments were seized on by investors and critics who said she was improperly exerting influence over her prior monetary policy portfolio. In separate remarks later on Tuesday, Ms. Yellen made clear that she respects the central bank’s independence and was not making a recommendation.
The stock market, which had been down in early trading, declined further after Ms. Yellen’s initial comments. Shortly before noon, the S&P 500 touched its worst level of the day, down 1.5 percent. Shares of some high-growth technology companies — which are especially sensitive to the risk of higher interest rates — were hard hit and weighed on the market. But the blue chip index cut those losses in half in the afternoon, ending the trading day down just 0.7 percent.
Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said last month that the central bank is unlikely to raise interest rates this year and that officials want to see further healing in the American economy they will consider pulling back their support by slowing government-backed bond purchases and lifting borrowing costs.
While the Fed is watching for signs of inflation, Mr. Powell and other Fed officials have said they believe any price spikes will be temporary. On Monday, John C. Williams, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said that while the economy is recovering, “the data and conditions we are seeing now are not nearly enough” for the Fed’s policy-setting committee “to shift its monetary policy stance.”
Ms. Yellen did not predict a huge spike in interest rates, which have been near zero since March 2020. But she said some “modest” increases might be necessary as the economy recovers from the pandemic downturn and the administration tries to push through infrastructure and other investments aimed at making the United States more competitive and productive.
“It may be that interest rates will have to rise somewhat to make sure that our economy doesn’t overheat, even though the additional spending is relatively small relative to the size of the economy,” Ms. Yellen said when asked if the economy could handle the kind of robust spending that the Biden administration is proposing.
“I think that our economy will grow faster because of them,” Ms. Yellen said of the proposed investments, such as research and development spending.
The Biden administration has proposed spending approximately $4 trillion over a decade and would pay for the plan with tax increases on companies and the rich.
Ms. Yellen’s comments drew some criticism on Tuesday among those who believed she was overstepping her bounds by weighing in on monetary policy.
“Treasury secretaries shouldn’t talk about the Fed’s policy rate, and Fed governors shouldn’t talk about U.S. dollar policy,” Tony Fratto, a former official at Treasury and the White House during the Bush administration, said on Twitter.
Francesco Bianchi, a Duke University economist who co-authored a 2019 research paper about the impact of former President Donald J. Trump’s tweets on perceptions of the Fed’s independence, called Ms. Yellen’s comments “unfortunate to the extent that the Fed is trying very hard to convince markets that interest rates will remain low.” However, he did not believe Ms. Yellen’s remarks were actually inappropriate.
“It is not clear that the comment qualifies as central bank interference because Secretary Yellen was describing what she thinks would happen as the economy recovers and the Biden administration implements its policies,” Mr. Bianchi said in an email. “In other words, she did not ‘recommend’ that the Federal Reserve follows a particular policy prescription, but she seemed to reflect on how generally interest rates behave as the economy improves.”
Asked about Ms. Yellen’s comments, Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said the Treasury secretary was not trying to tell the Fed what to do or impeding on the central bank’s independence with her comment on interest rates.
“I would say, of all people, Secretary Yellen certainly understands the independence and the role of the Federal Reserve, and I think she was simply answering a question and conveying how we balance decision-making here,” Ms. Psaki said.
Speaking at a Wall Street Journal C.E.O. Council event on Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Yellen echoed that sentiment. She said she was not prescribing a rate hike and dismissed the idea that she would ever attempt to infringe on the Fed’s independence.
“Let me be clear, it’s not something I’m predicting or recommending,” Ms. Yellen said of raising interest rates. “If anybody appreciates the independence of the Fed, I think that person is me.”
Matt Phillips contributed reporting.