September 2012 FOMC Meeting Minutes - The Story of QE3

October 4th, 2012
in econ_news, syndication

Fed-sealSMALLEconintersect: This is the meeting which culminated in QE3. The 13 September 2012 meeting statement presented the actions taken, including the usual whiff of quantitative easing (QE), but these meeting minutes released today provides the detailed discussion that lead to QE3.

It appears that the FOMC members believed the economy is expanding moderately, but were concerned about unemployment. But, it appears the biggest concern was government itself:

Participants generally expected that fiscal policy would continue to be a drag on economic activity over coming quarters. In addition to ongoing weakness in spending at the federal, state, and local government levels, uncertainties about tax and spending policies reportedly were restraining business decisionmaking. Participants also noted that if an agreement was not reached to tackle the expiring tax cuts and scheduled spending reductions, a sharp consolidation of fiscal policy would take place at the beginning of 2013..

Follow up:

Econintersect publishes below the views of the FOMC members, and does not go over the reports to the members. We are looking for a glimpse of insight into the minds of the FOMC members.


Participants' Views on Current Conditions and the Economic Outlook
In conjunction with this FOMC meeting, meeting participants--the 7 members of the Board of Governors and the presidents of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks, all of whom participate in the deliberations of the FOMC--submitted their assessments of real output growth, the unemployment rate, inflation, and the target federal funds rate for each year from 2012 through 2015 and over the longer run, under each participants' judgment of appropriate monetary policy. The longer-run projections represent each participant's assessment of the rate to which each variable would be expected to converge, over time, under appropriate monetary policy and in the absence of further shocks to the economy. These economic projections and policy assessments are described in the Summary of Economic Projections, which is attached as an addendum to these minutes.

In their discussion of the economic situation and outlook, meeting participants regarded the information received during the intermeeting period as indicating that economic activity had continued to expand at a moderate pace in recent months. However, recent gains in employment were small and the unemployment rate remained high. Although consumer spending had continued to advance, growth in business fixed investment appeared to have slowed. The housing sector showed some further signs of improvement, albeit from a depressed level. Consumer price inflation had been subdued despite recent increases in the prices of some key commodities, and longer-term inflation expectations had remained stable.

Regarding the economic outlook, participants generally agreed that the pace of the economic recovery would likely remain moderate over coming quarters but would pick up over the 2013-15 period. In the near term, the drought in the Midwest was expected to weigh on economic growth. Moreover, participants observed that the pace of economic recovery would likely continue to be held down for some time by persistent headwinds, including continued weakness in the housing market, ongoing household sector deleveraging, still-tight credit conditions for some households and businesses, and fiscal consolidation at all levels of government. Many participants also noted that a high level of uncertainty regarding the European fiscal and banking crisis and the outlook for U.S. fiscal and regulatory policies was weighing on confidence, thereby restraining household and business spending. However, others questioned the role of uncertainty about policy as a factor constraining aggregate demand. In addition, participants still saw significant downside risks to the outlook for economic growth. Prominent among these risks were a possible intensification of strains in the euro zone, with potential spillovers to U.S. financial markets and institutions and thus to the broader U.S. economy; a larger-than-expected U.S. fiscal tightening; and the possibility of a further slowdown in global economic growth. A few participants, however, mentioned the possibility that economic growth could be more rapid than currently anticipated, particularly if major sources of uncertainty were resolved favorably or if faster-than-expected advances in the housing sector led to improvements in household balance sheets, increased confidence, and easier credit conditions. Participants' forecasts for economic activity, which in most cases were conditioned on an assumption of additional, near-term monetary policy accommodation, were also associated with an outlook for the unemployment rate to remain close to recent levels through 2012 and then to decline gradually toward levels judged to be consistent with the Committee's mandate.

In the household sector, incoming data on retail sales were somewhat stronger than expected. Participants noted, however, that households were still in the process of deleveraging, confidence was low, and consumers appeared to remain particularly pessimistic about the prospects for the future, raising doubts that the somewhat stronger pace of spending would persist. Although the level of activity in the housing sector remained low, the somewhat faster pace of home sales and construction provided some encouraging signs of improvement. A number of participants also observed that house prices were rising. It was noted that such increases, coupled with historically low mortgage rates, could lead to a stronger upturn in housing activity, although constraints on the capacity for loan origination and still-tight credit terms for some borrowers continued to weigh on mortgage lending.

Business contacts in many parts of the country were reported to be highly uncertain about the outlook for the economy and for fiscal and regulatory policies. Although firms' balance sheets were generally strong, these uncertainties had led them to be particularly cautious and to remain reluctant to hire or expand capacity. Reports on manufacturing activity were mixed, with production related to autos and housing the most notable areas of relative strength. In one District, business surveys pointed to further growth; however, readings on forward-looking indicators of orders around the country were less positive. In addition, business contacts noted that export demand was showing signs of weakness as a result of the slowdown in economic activity in Europe. The energy sector continued to expand. In the agricultural sector, high grain prices and crop insurance payments were supporting farm incomes, helping offset declines in production and reduced profits on livestock. The drought was expected to reduce farm inventories and have a transitory impact on broader measures of economic growth.

Participants generally expected that fiscal policy would continue to be a drag on economic activity over coming quarters. In addition to ongoing weakness in spending at the federal, state, and local government levels, uncertainties about tax and spending policies reportedly were restraining business decisionmaking. Participants also noted that if an agreement was not reached to tackle the expiring tax cuts and scheduled spending reductions, a sharp consolidation of fiscal policy would take place at the beginning of 2013.

The available indicators pointed to continued weakness in overall labor market conditions. Growth in employment had been disappointing, with the average monthly increases in payrolls so far this year below last year's pace and below the pace that would be required to make significant progress in reducing the unemployment rate. The unemployment rate declined around the turn of the year but had not fallen significantly since then. In addition, the labor force participation rate and employment-to-population ratios were at or near post-recession lows.

Meeting participants again discussed the extent of slack in labor markets. A few participants reiterated their view that the persistently high level of unemployment reflected the effect of structural factors, including mismatches across and within sectors between the skills of the unemployed and those demanded in sectors in which jobs were currently available. It was also suggested that there was an ongoing process of polarization in the labor market, with the share of job opportunities in middle-skill occupations continuing to decline while the shares of low and high skill occupations increased. Both of these views would suggest a lower level of potential output and thus reduced scope for combating unemployment with additional monetary policy stimulus. Several participants, while acknowledging some evidence of structural changes in the labor market, stated again that weak aggregate demand was the principal reason for the high unemployment rate. They saw slack in resource utilization as remaining wide, indicating an important role for additional policy accommodation. Several participants noted the risk that continued high levels of unemployment, even if initially cyclical, might ultimately induce adverse structural changes. In particular, they expressed concerns about the risk that the exceptionally high level of long-term unemployment and the depressed level of labor participation could ultimately lead to permanent negative effects on the skills and prospects of those without jobs, thereby reducing the longer-run normal level of employment and potential output.

Sentiment in financial markets improved notably during the intermeeting period. Participants indicated that recent decisions by the ECB helped ease investors' anxiety about the near-term prospects for the euro. However, participants also observed that significant risks related to the euro-area banking and fiscal crisis remained, and that a number of important issues would have to be resolved in order to achieve further progress toward a comprehensive solution to the crisis. Participants noted that indicators of financial stress in the United States were not especially high and overall conditions in U.S. financial markets remained favorable. Longer-term interest rates were low and supportive of economic growth, while equity prices had risen. One participant noted that, while there were few current signs of excessive risk-taking, low interest rates could ultimately lead to financial imbalances that would be challenging to detect before they became serious problems.

The incoming information on inflation over the intermeeting period was largely in line with participants' expectations. Despite recent increases in the prices of some key commodities, consumer price inflation remained subdued. With longer-term inflation expectations stable and the unemployment rate elevated, participants generally anticipated that inflation over the medium run would likely run at or below the 2 percent rate that the Committee judges to be most consistent with its mandate. Most participants saw the risks to the outlook for inflation as roughly balanced. A few participants felt that maintaining a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy over an extended period could unmoor longer-term inflation expectations and, against a backdrop of higher energy and commodity prices, posed upside risks to inflation. Other participants, by contrast, saw inflation risks as tilted to the downside, given their expectations for sizable and persistent resource slack.

Participants again exchanged views on the likely benefits and costs of a new large-scale asset purchase program. Many participants anticipated that such a program would provide support to the economic recovery by putting downward pressure on longer-term interest rates and promoting more accommodative financial conditions. A number of participants also indicated that it could lift consumer and business confidence by emphasizing the Committee's commitment to continued progress toward its dual mandate. In addition, it was noted that additional purchases could reinforce the Committee's forward guidance regarding the federal funds rate. Participants discussed the effectiveness of purchases of Treasury securities relative to purchases of agency MBS in easing financial conditions. Some participants suggested that, all else being equal, MBS purchases could be preferable because they would more directly support the housing sector, which remains weak but has shown some signs of improvement of late. One participant, however, objected that purchases of MBS, when compared to purchases of longer-term Treasury securities, would likely result in higher interest rates for many borrowers in other sectors. A number of participants highlighted the uncertainty about the overall effects of additional purchases on financial markets and the real economy. Some participants thought past purchases were useful because they were conducted during periods of market stress or heightened deflation risk and were less confident of the efficacy of additional purchases under present circumstances. A few expressed skepticism that additional policy accommodation could help spur an economy that they saw as held back by uncertainties and a range of structural issues. In discussing the costs and risks that such a program might entail, several participants reiterated their concern that additional purchases might complicate the Committee's efforts to withdraw monetary policy accommodation when it eventually became appropriate to do so, raising the risk of undesirably high inflation in the future and potentially unmooring inflation expectations. One participant noted that an extended period of accommodation resulting from additional asset purchases could lead to excessive risk-taking on the part of some investors and so undermine financial stability over time. The possible adverse effects of large purchases on market functioning were also noted. However, most participants thought these risks could be managed since the Committee could make adjustments to its purchases, as needed, in response to economic developments or to changes in its assessment of their efficacy and costs.

Participants also discussed issues related to the provision of forward guidance regarding the future path of the federal funds rate. It was noted that clear communication and credibility allow the central bank to help shape the public's expectations about policy, which is crucial to managing monetary policy when the federal funds rate is at its effective lower bound. A number of participants questioned the effectiveness of continuing to use a calendar date to provide forward guidance, noting that a change in the calendar date might be interpreted pessimistically as a downgrade of the Committee's economic outlook rather than as conveying the Committee's determination to support the economic recovery. If the public interpreted the statement pessimistically, consumer and business confidence could fall rather than rise. Many participants indicated a preference for replacing the calendar date with language describing the economic factors that the Committee would consider in deciding to raise its target for the federal funds rate. Participants discussed the benefits of such an approach, including the potential for enhanced effectiveness of policy through greater clarity regarding the Committee's future behavior. That approach could also bolster the stimulus provided by the System's holdings of longer-term securities. It was noted that forward guidance along these lines would allow market expectations regarding the federal funds rate to adjust automatically in response to incoming data on the economy. Many participants thought that more-effective forward guidance could be provided by specifying numerical thresholds for labor market and inflation indicators that would be consistent with maintaining the federal funds rate at exceptionally low levels. However, reaching agreement on specific thresholds could be challenging given the diversity of participants' views, and some were reluctant to specify explicit numerical thresholds out of concern that such thresholds would necessarily be too simple to fully capture the complexities of the economy and the policy process or could be incorrectly interpreted as triggers prompting an automatic policy response. In addition, numerical thresholds could be confused with the Committee's longer-term objectives, and so undermine the Committee's credibility. At the conclusion of the discussion, most participants agreed that the use of numerical thresholds could be useful to provide more clarity about the conditionality of the forward guidance but thought that further work would be needed to address the related communications challenges.

Steven Hansen

Source: Federal Reserve


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