Econintersect: The 20 March 2013 meeting statement presented the actions taken. This post covers the economic discussion during this FOMC meeting between the members. The Fed's Balance Sheet (which we report on weekly) is now at record levels.
It appears that the FOMC members believed the economy is doing ok - just not great. The most interesting discussion was on the QE programs, and the arguments on benefits and risks:
.....Participants generally agreed that asset purchases also have potential costs and risks. In particular, participants pointed to possible risks to the stability of the financial system, the functioning of particular financial markets, the smooth withdrawal of monetary accommodation when it eventually becomes appropriate, and the Federal Reserve's net income. Their views on the practical importance of these risks varied, as did their prescriptions for mitigating them.
.....A few participants noted that they already viewed the costs as likely outweighing the benefits and so would like to bring the program to a close relatively soon. A few others saw the risks as increasing fairly quickly with the size of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet and judged that the pace of purchases would likely need to be reduced before long. Many participants, including some of those who were focused on the increasing risks, expressed the view that continued solid improvement in the outlook for the labor market could prompt the Committee to slow the pace of purchases beginning at some point over the next several meetings, while a few participants suggested that economic conditions would likely justify continuing the program at its current pace at least until late in the year.
Specific participant discussions follows.
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 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 2013 through 2015 and over the longer run, under each participant's 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.
Meeting participants generally indicated that they viewed the economic data received during the intermeeting period as somewhat more positive than had been expected, but that fiscal policy appeared to have become more restrictive, leaving the outlook for the economy little changed on balance since the January meeting. Participants judged that the economy had returned to moderate growth following a pause late last year, and a few noted that the downside risks may have diminished. Conditions in labor markets had shown signs of improvement, although the unemployment rate remained elevated. Spending by households and businesses was continuing to expand, perhaps reflecting some increased optimism. Participants noted that the housing market, in particular, had firmed somewhat further. Accommodative monetary policy was likely providing important support to these developments. In contrast, participants thought that fiscal policy was exerting significant near-term restraint on the economy. Participants generally anticipated that growth would proceed at a moderate pace and that the unemployment rate would decline gradually toward levels consistent with the Committee's mandate. Inflation had been running below the Committee's 2 percent objective for some time, and nearly all of the participants anticipated that it would run at or below 2 percent over the medium term.
In their discussion of the household sector, most participants noted that the data on spending were somewhat encouraging, particularly with regard to spending on automobiles, other consumer durables, and housing. Several participants stated that the moderate acceleration in spending might in part reflect pent-up demand following years of deleveraging and was importantly supported by the stance of monetary policy, which has reduced the cost of financing purchases and improved credit availability to some degree. A couple of participants noted that the increase in the payroll tax appeared to have not yet had a material effect on household spending; however, another suggested that the payroll tax increase, along with higher gasoline prices, may be one reason why spending by lower-income households appeared to be depressed, as those changes disproportionately cut into the disposable income of those households. A couple of other participants thought that overall consumer spending was likely still held back, at least in part, by ongoing concerns about future income and employment prospects. Both fiscal restraint and the high level of student debt were mentioned as risks to aggregate household spending over the forecast period.
Participants generally saw conditions in the housing market as having improved further over the intermeeting period. Rising house prices were strengthening household balance sheets by raising wealth and by increasing the ability of some homeowners to refinance their mortgages at lower rates. Such a dynamic was seen as potentially leading to a virtuous cycle that could help support household spending and financial market conditions over time. Reports from homebuilders in many parts of the country were encouraging. One participant pointed to ongoing changes in a range of factors--including demographics, credit conditions, business models, and consumer preferences--that were likely shifting both supply and demand in the housing sector and concluded that the outlook for the sector was quite uncertain and potentially subject to rapid changes.
Many participants reported that their business contacts were seeing some further improvement in the economic outlook. Firms reported increased planning for capital expenditures, supported by low interest rates and substantial cash holdings. Investment spending on productivity-enhancing technology was strong, as was pipeline construction in the energy sector. A few participants indicated that their contacts saw the level of uncertainty about the economic outlook as having declined recently, a development that could lead to increased investment expenditures.
Most participants remarked on the federal spending sequester and its potential effects on the economy; they judged that recent tax and spending changes were already restraining aggregate demand or would do so over the course of the year. A couple of participants, however, suggested that they had cut their estimates of the effect of recent federal austerity measures or had never considered the effects to be substantial.
Recent readings on private employment and the unemployment rate indicated some improvement in labor market conditions. Nonetheless, participants generally saw the unemployment rate as still elevated and were not yet confident that the recent progress toward the Committee's employment objective would be sustained. The need to use a range of indicators to gauge labor market conditions was noted. One participant highlighted that hiring rates and quit rates remained somewhat low. Another participant discussed evidence that the labor market may have become less dynamic over time, with the result that recent payroll gains might be more meaningful than would first appear. Inference about the labor force participation rate was complicated by its long-run downward trend. One participant cited research indicating that long-term unemployment, which is currently especially high, could lead to persistently lower income and wealth for those affected, even after they found jobs. More broadly, firms reportedly remained cautious about hiring, which some participants attributed in part to restrictive fiscal policy combined with growing regulatory burden. This caution appeared to have resulted in jobs remaining vacant for substantially longer than would normally be the case, given the unemployment rate.
Recent price developments were consistent with subdued inflation pressures and inflation remaining at or below the Committee's 2 percent objective over the medium run. Participants saw little near-term inflationary pressure, with a few noting that the appreciation of the dollar was holding down import costs or that the recent increases in gasoline prices did not appear to have passed through more broadly to prices of other goods. Pointing to inflation that had been running below their objective for some time, some participants saw downside risks to inflation, especially if economic activity did not pick up as projected. But a few participants noted that the risk remained that inflationary pressures could rise as the expansion continued, especially if monetary policy remained highly accommodative for too long.
Participants discussed their assessments of risks to financial stability, particularly in light of the Committee's highly accommodative stance of monetary policy. Many participants noted that in the current low-interest rate environment, investors in some financial markets were taking on additional risk--either credit risk or interest rate risk--in an effort to boost returns. As a result, vigilance on the part of policymakers and regulators was warranted, especially in light of episodic strains in European markets. A couple of participants noted that U.S. banks had expanded their capital positions and were generally in sound financial condition. Meeting participants generally agreed that there was an ongoing need to evaluate the possible interactions between monetary policy decisions and financial stability, with some noting that adverse shocks to financial stability can affect progress toward the Committee's dual mandate.
Review of Efficacy and Costs of Asset Purchases
The staff provided presentations covering the efficacy of the Federal Reserve's asset purchases, the effects of the purchases on security market functioning, the ways in which asset purchases might amplify or reduce risks to financial stability, and the fiscal implications of purchases. In their discussion of this topic, meeting participants generally judged the macroeconomic benefits of the current purchase program to outweigh the likely costs and risks, but they agreed that an ongoing assessment of the benefits and costs was necessary. Pointing to academic and Federal Reserve staff research, most participants saw asset purchases as having a meaningful effect in easing financial conditions and so supporting economic growth. Some expressed the view that these effects had likely been stronger during the Federal Reserve's initial large-scale asset purchases because that program also helped support market functioning during the financial crisis. Other participants, however, saw little evidence that the efficacy of asset purchases had declined over time, and a couple of these suggested that the effectiveness of purchases might even have increased more recently, as the easing of credit constraints allowed more borrowers to take advantage of lower interest rates. One participant emphasized the role of recent asset purchases in keeping inflation from declining further below the Committee's longer-run goal. A few participants felt that MBS purchases provided more support to the economy than purchases of longer-term Treasury securities because they stimulated the housing sector directly; however, a few preferred to focus any purchases in the Treasury market to avoid allocating credit to a specific sector of the economy. It was noted that, in addition to the standard channels through which monetary policy affects the economy, asset purchases could help signal the Committee's commitment to accommodative monetary policy, thereby making the forward guidance about the federal funds rate more effective. However, a few participants were not convinced of the benefits of asset purchases, stating that the effects on financial markets appeared to be short lived or that they saw little evidence of a significant macroeconomic effect. One participant suggested that the signaling effect of asset purchases may have been reduced by the adoption of threshold-based forward guidance. In general, reflecting the limited experience with large-scale asset purchases, participants recognized that estimates of the economic effects were necessarily imprecise and covered a wide range.
Participants generally agreed that asset purchases also have potential costs and risks. In particular, participants pointed to possible risks to the stability of the financial system, the functioning of particular financial markets, the smooth withdrawal of monetary accommodation when it eventually becomes appropriate, and the Federal Reserve's net income. Their views on the practical importance of these risks varied, as did their prescriptions for mitigating them. Asset purchases were seen by some as having a potential to contribute to imbalances in financial markets and asset prices, which could undermine financial stability over time. Moreover, to the extent that asset purchases push down longer-term interest rates, they potentially expose financial markets to a rapid rise in those rates in the future, which could impose significant losses on some investors and intermediaries. Several participants suggested that enhanced supervision could serve to limit, at least to some extent, the increased risk-taking associated with a lengthy period of low long-term interest rates, and that effective policy communication or balance sheet management by the Committee could reduce the probability of excessively rapid increases in longer-term rates. It was also noted that the accommodative stance of policy could be supporting financial stability by returning the economy to a stable footing sooner than would otherwise be the case and perhaps by allowing borrowers to secure longer-term financing and thereby reduce funding risks; by contrast, curtailing asset purchases could slow the recovery and so extend the period of very low interest rates. Nevertheless, a number of participants remained concerned about the potential for financial stability risks to build. One consequence of asset purchases has been the increase in the Federal Reserve's net income and its remittances to the Treasury, but those values were projected to decline, perhaps even to zero for a time, as the Committee eventually withdraws policy accommodation. Some participants were concerned that a substantial decline in remittances might lead to an adverse public reaction or potentially undermine Federal Reserve credibility or effectiveness. The possibility of such outcomes was seen as necessitating clear communications about the outlook for Federal Reserve net income. Several participants stated that such risks should not inhibit the Committee from pursuing its mandated objectives for inflation and employment. In any case, it was indicated that the fiscal benefits of a stronger economy would be much greater than any short-term fluctuations in remittances, and moreover, a couple of participants noted that cumulative remittances to the Treasury would likely be higher than would have been the case without any asset purchases. Some participants also were concerned that additional asset purchases could complicate the eventual firming of policy--for example, by impairing the Committee's control over the federal funds rate. A few participants raised the possibility of an undesirable rise in inflation. However, others expressed confidence in the Committee's exit tools and its resolve to keep inflation near its longer-run goal. Another exit-related concern was a possible adverse effect on market functioning from MBS sales during the normalization of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet. Although the Committee's asset purchases have had little apparent effect on securities market functioning to date, some participants felt that future asset sales could prove more challenging. In this regard, several participants noted that a decision by the Committee to hold its MBS to maturity instead of selling them would essentially eliminate this risk. A decision not to sell MBS, or to sell MBS only very slowly, would also mitigate some of the financial stability risks that could be associated with such sales as well as damp the decline in remittances to the Treasury at that time. Such a decision was also seen by some as a potential source of additional near-term policy accommodation. Overall, most meeting participants thought the risks and costs of additional asset purchases remained manageable, but also that continued close attention to these issues was warranted. A few participants noted that curtailing the purchase program was the most direct way to mitigate the costs and risks.
In light of their discussion of the benefits and costs of asset purchases, participants discussed their views on the appropriate course for the current asset purchase program. A few participants noted that they already viewed the costs as likely outweighing the benefits and so would like to bring the program to a close relatively soon. A few others saw the risks as increasing fairly quickly with the size of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet and judged that the pace of purchases would likely need to be reduced before long. Many participants, including some of those who were focused on the increasing risks, expressed the view that continued solid improvement in the outlook for the labor market could prompt the Committee to slow the pace of purchases beginning at some point over the next several meetings, while a few participants suggested that economic conditions would likely justify continuing the program at its current pace at least until late in the year. A range of views was expressed regarding the economic and labor market conditions that would call for an adjustment in the pace of purchases. Many participants emphasized that any decision to reduce the pace of purchases should reflect both an improvement in their overall outlook for labor market conditions, as implied by a wide range of available indicators, and their confidence in the sustainability of that improvement. A couple of these participants noted that if progress toward the Committee's economic goals were not maintained, the pace of purchases might appropriately be increased. A number of participants suggested that the Committee could change the mix of its policy tools if necessary to increase or maintain overall accommodation, including potentially adjusting its forward guidance or its balance sheet policies.
Source: Federal Reserve