CNN Exclusive: Treasury secretary says she's not seeing signs of a recession in the US economy

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Thursday in an exclusive interview with CNN that she did not see signs of a recession in the near term as the US economy rebounded from six months of contraction.

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During a one-on-one interview in Ohio that aired on CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront,” Yellen said the third quarter GDP data released Thursday underscored the strength of the US economy as policy makers urgently move to cool off pervasive and soaring inflation that has had a sharp effect on American views of the economy – and endangered the Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill less than two weeks from the midterm elections.

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“Look, what we’re seeing right now is solid growth this quarter. Growth has obviously slowed following a very rapid recovery from high unemployment,” Yellen said when asked about whether the latest GDP data assuaged any recession concerns. “We’re at a full employment economy. It’s very natural that growth would slow. And it has over the first three quarters of this year, but it continues to be OK. We have a very strong labor market. I don’t see signs of a recession in this economy at this point.”

Yellen’s optimism comes amid growing concern from economists and finance officials that a recession is likely at some point in the next year, but was based in part on elements of the latest data that showed signs a necessary slowdown in key areas of the economy leaves open a pathway to a “soft landing” as the Federal Reserve prepares to continue its rapid pace of rate increases.

Gross domestic product — the broadest measure of economic activity — rose by an annualized rate of 2.6% during the third quarter, according to initial estimates released Thursday by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That’s a turnaround from a decline of 1.6% in the first quarter of the year and negative 0.6% in the second.

But Yellen’s view also underscored the complex balancing act President Joe Biden and his top economic officials have attempted over the course of this year, as they seek to highlight a rapid economic recovery and major legislative victories while also pledging to tackle soaring prices.

“Inflation is very high – it’s unacceptably high and Americans feel that every day,” Yellen said when asked how the administration squared its view of the US economy with soaring discontent among voters. Yellen acknowledged that the prices would take time to recede, saying the efforts to bring it back down to levels “that people are more accustomed to” will likely cover “the next couple of years.”

It’s a reality that has undercut efforts by the administrationto take advantage of what officials view as a robust record. Biden, asked about the economy last week, told reporters it’s “strong as hell,” drawing criticism from Republicans.

But Yellen agreed with the President’s assessment that the economy remains strong, standing out in comparison to how other economies around the world are fairing.

“If you look around the world, there are a lot of economies that are really suffering not only from high inflation but very weak economic performance, and the United States stands out. We have unemployment at a 50-year low. … We saw in this morning’s report – consumer spending and investment spending continued to grow. We have solid household finances, business finances, banks that are well capitalized,” she said.

She added, “This is not an economy that’s in recession and we continue to do well.”

Yellen also acknowledged frustration inside the administration that the efforts to pull the US economy out of crisis haven’t received the credit officials believe is merited.

“There were several problems that we could have had, and difficulties many families American families could have faced,” Yellen said. “These are problems we don’t have, because of what the Biden administration has done. So, often one doesn’t get credit for problems that don’t exist.”

Yellen traveled to Cleveland as part of an administration push to highlight the major legislative wins – and the tens of billions of dollars in private sector investment those policies have driven toward manufacturing around the country.

It’s a critical piece of an economic strategy designed to address many of the vulnerabilities and failings laid bare as Covid-19 ravaged the world, with significant federal investments in infrastructure and shoring up – or creating from scratch – key pieces of critical supply chains.

Listing off a series of major private sector investments, including the $20 billion Intel plant opened a few hours drive outside of Columbus, Yellen said they were “real tangible investments happening now,” even as she acknowledged they would take time to full take effect.

Yellen pledged that those efforts would be felt as they course through the economy in the months and years ahead. Asked if the administration’s general message to Americans was one of patience, Yellen said: “Yes.”

“But you’re beginning to see repaired bridges come online – not in every community, but pretty soon. Many communities are going to see roads improved, bridges repaired that have been falling apart. We’re seeing money flow into research and development, which is really an important source of long term strength to the American economy. And America’s strength is going to increase and we’re going to become a more competitive economy,” she said.

Yellen also addressed the battle lines that have been drawn this week over raising the debt ceiling, a now-perpetual Washington crisis of its own making that House Republicans have once again pledged to utilize for leverage should they take the majority.

“The President and I agree that America should not be held hostage by members of Congress who think it’s alright to compromise the credit rating of the United States and to threaten default on US Treasuries, which are the bedrock of global financial markets,” Yellen said.

But Yellen, who has long highlighted the “destructive” nature of the showdowns, has also backed doing away with the debt limit altogether through legislation. A group of House Democrats wrote to Democratic leaders to request that action in the lame duck session of Congress, but Biden rejected the idea this week.

Asked about the split, Yellen said only that she and Biden agreed that it’s “really up to Congress to raise the debt ceiling.”

“It’s utterly essential that it be done, and I’d like to see it occur in the way that it can occur,” Yellen added.

As the administration moves toward a time period that traditionally leads top officials to leave an administration, she made clear she did not plan to be one of them. Asked about reports she had informed the White House she wanted to stay into next year, Yellen said it was “an accurate read.”

“I feel very excited by the program that we talked about,” Yellen said. “And I see in it great strengthening of economic growth and addressing climate change and strengthening American households. And I want to be part of that.”

CNN’s Alicia Wallace contributed to this report.

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