March 2012 FOMC Minutes: Members Uncertain About Economic Improvement

April 3rd, 2012
in econ_news

Fed-sealSMALLEconintersect: Looking into the minds of the members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) gives insights on how they view the economy. The March 13, 2012 meeting statement provided the actions taken, but the meeting minutes released today provides the detailed discussion.

It appears that the FOMC members believe the economy is improving but are uncertain that the improvements are sustainable.

Follow up:

Econintersect noted from the meeting statement:

No new programs were announced - and the FOMC voted to continue doing whatever they were doing.   Much of the difference in this meeting statement amounts to word subtle word engineering. No mention of new quantitative easing endeavors did not set well with precious metals which dropped on the release of the meeting statement.

Econintersect publishes below the comments of the FOMC members, not reports to the members - as it is an insight into the minds of the FOMC members.

The short version of where the economy is:

In their discussion of the economic situation...., while mixed, had been positive, on balance, and suggested that the economy had been expanding moderately. Labor market conditions had improved further: Payroll employment had continued to expand, and the unemployment rate had declined notably in recent months. Still, unemployment remained elevated. Household spending and business fixed investment had continued to advance. Despite signs of improvement or stabilization in some local housing markets, most participants agreed that the housing sector remained depressed. Inflation had been subdued in recent months, although prices of crude oil and gasoline had increased of late. Longer-term inflation expectations had remained stable, and most meeting participants saw little evidence of cost pressures.

...... Most participants noted that the incoming information on components of final spending had exhibited less strength than the indicators of employment and production. Some participants expressed the view that the recent increases in payrolls likely reflected, in part, a reversal of the sharp cuts in employment during the recession, a scenario consistent with the weak readings on productivity growth of late. In this view, the recent pace of employment gains might not be sustained if the growth rate of spending did not pick up. Several participants noted that the unseasonably warm weather of recent months added one more element of uncertainty to the interpretation of incoming data, and that this factor might account for a portion of the recent improvement in indicators of employment and housing. In a contrasting view, the improvements registered in labor market indicators could be seen as raising the likelihood that GDP data for the recent period would undergo a significant upward revision.

The short version of their economic outlook:

..... economic growth over coming quarters would continue to be moderate and that the unemployment rate would decline gradually toward levels that the Committee judges to be consistent with its dual mandate. While a few participants indicated that their expectations for real GDP growth for 2012 had risen somewhat, most participants did not interpret the recent economic and financial information as pointing to a material revision to the outlook for 2013 and 2014. Financial conditions had improved notably since the January meeting: Equity prices were higher and risk spreads had declined.  Nonetheless, a number of factors continued to be seen as likely to restrain the pace of economic expansion; these included slower growth in some foreign economies, prospective fiscal tightening in the United States, the weak housing market, further household deleveraging, and high levels of uncertainty among households and businesses. Participants continued to expect most of the factors restraining economic expansion to ease over time and so anticipated that the recovery would gradually gain strength. In addition, participants noted that recent policy actions in the euro area had helped reduce financial stresses and lower downside risks in the short term; however, increased volatility in financial markets remained a possibility if measures to address the longer-term fiscal and banking issues in the euro area were not put in place in a timely fashion. Inflation had been subdued of late, although the recent increase in crude oil and gasoline prices would push up inflation temporarily. With unemployment expected to remain elevated, and with longer-term inflation expectations stable, most participants expected that inflation subsequently would run at or below the 2 percent rate that the Committee judges most consistent with its statutory mandate over the longer run.

On consumers:

....  consumer spending had increased moderately of late. While a few participants suggested that recent improvements in labor market conditions and the easing in financial conditions could help lay the groundwork for a strengthening in the pace of household spending, several other participants pointed to factors that would likely restrain consumption: Growth in real disposable income was still sluggish, and consumer sentiment, despite some improvement since last summer, remained weak. A number of participants viewed the recent run-up in petroleum prices as likely to limit gains in consumer spending on non-energy items for a time; a couple of participants noted, however, that the unseasonably warm weather and the declining price of natural gas had helped cushion the effect of higher oil and gasoline prices on consumers' overall energy bills. Most participants agreed that, while recent housing-sector data had shown some tentative indications of upward movement, the level of activity in that sector remained depressed and was likely to recover only slowly over time. One participant, while agreeing that the housing market had not yet turned the corner, was more optimistic about the potential for a stronger recovery in the market in light of signs of reduced inventory overhang and stronger demand in some regions.

On business:

....... activity in the manufacturing, energy, and agriculture sectors continued to advance in recent months. In the retail sector, sales of new autos had strengthened, but reports from other retailers were mixed. A number of businesses had indicated that they were seeing some improvement in demand and that they had become somewhat more optimistic of late, with some reporting that they were adding to capacity. But most firms reportedly remained fairly cautious--particularly on hiring decisions--and continued to be uncertain about the strength of the recovery.

On fiscal policy:


Assessments of the outlook for government revenues and expenditures were mixed. State and local government spending had recently shown modest growth, following a lengthy period of contraction, and declines in public-sector employment appeared to have abated of late. However, it was noted that if agreement was not reached on a longer-term plan for the federal budget, an abrupt and sharp fiscal tightening would occur at the start of 2013. A number of participants observed that exports continued to be a positive factor for U.S. growth, while noting risks to the export picture from economic weakness in Europe or a greater-than-expected slowdown in China and emerging Asia.

On employment:

........ the continued improvement in labor market conditions since the January meeting. A couple of participants stated that the progress suggested by the payroll numbers was also apparent in a broad array of labor market indicators, and others noted survey measures suggesting further solid gains in employment going forward. One participant pointed to inflation readings and a high rate of long-duration unemployment as signs that the current level of output may be much closer to potential than had been thought, and a few others cited a weaker path of potential output as a characteristic of the present expansion. However, a number of participants judged that the labor market currently featured substantial slack. In support of that view, various indicators were cited, including aggregate hours, which during the recession had exhibited a decline that was particularly severe by historical standards and remained well below the series' pre-recession peak; the high number of persons working part time for economic reasons; and low ratios of job openings to unemployment and of employment to population.

Financial Markets:

Many participants noted that strains in global financial markets had eased somewhat, and that financial conditions were more supportive of economic growth than at the time of the January meeting. Among the evidence cited were higher equity prices and better conditions in corporate credit markets, especially the markets for high-yield bonds and leveraged loans. Banking contacts were reporting steady, though modest, growth in C&I loans. Many meeting participants believed that policy actions in the euro area, notably the Greek debt swap and the ECB's longer-term refinancing operations, had helped to ease strains in financial markets and reduced the downside risks to the U.S. and global economic outlook. Nonetheless, a number of participants noted that a longer-term solution to the banking and fiscal problems in the euro area would require substantial further adjustment in the banking and public sectors. Participants saw the possibility of disruptions in global financial markets as continuing to pose a risk to growth.

On Inflation:

While the recent readings on consumer price inflation had been subdued, participants agreed that inflation in the near term would be pushed up by rising oil and gasoline prices. A few participants noted that the crude oil price increases in the latter half of 2010 and the early part of 2011 had been part of a broad-based rise in commodity prices; in contrast, non-energy commodity prices had been more stable of late, which suggested that the recent upward pressure on oil prices was principally due to geopolitical concerns rather than global economic growth. A couple of participants noted that recent readings on unit labor costs had shown a larger increase than earlier, but other participants pointed to other measures of labor compensation that continued to show modest increases. With longer-run inflation expectations still well anchored, most participants anticipated that after the temporary effect of the rise in oil and gasoline prices had run its course, inflation would be at or below the 2 percent rate that they judge most consistent with the Committee's dual mandate. Indeed, a few participants were concerned that, with the persistence of considerable resource slack, inflation might be below the mandate-consistent rate for some time. Other participants, however, were worried that inflation pressures could increase as the expansion continued; these participants argued that, particularly in light of the recent rise in oil and gasoline prices, maintaining the current highly accommodative stance of monetary policy over the medium run could erode the stability of inflation expectations and risk higher inflation.

There were several procedural votes on extending or slightly modifying existing Fed policy. These can be read by clicking on the hyperlink below.

Steven Hansen

source: Federal Reserve




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