March 2014 FOMC Meeting Minutes: China Could Have Adverse Implications for Global Economic Growth

April 9th, 2014
in econ_news, syndication

Fed-sealSMALLEconintersect: The 19 March 2014 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) continues to grow at record levels.

This was the first meeting chaired by Janet Yellen. The meeting minutes have a slightly different feel with more convergence of views and events. The more interesting points are highlighted in bold below.

One of the more interesting meeting minute statements:

It was suggested that slower growth in China had likely already put some downward pressure on world commodity prices, and a couple of participants observed that a larger-than-expected slowdown in economic growth in China could have adverse implications for global economic growth.

Follow up:

Econintersect publishes below the views of the FOMC members, and ignores the reports given 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, the meeting participants--the 4 members of the Board of Governors and the presidents of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks, all of whom participated in the deliberations--submitted their assessments of real output growth, the unemployment rate, inflation, and the target federal funds rate for each year from 2014 through 2016 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 SEP, which is attached as an addendum to these minutes. In their discussion of the economic situation and the outlook, participants generally noted that data released since their January meeting had indicated somewhat slower-than-expected growth in economic activity during the winter months, in part reflecting adverse weather conditions. Labor market indicators were mixed. Inflation had continued to run below the Committee's longer-run objective, but longer-term inflation expectations had remained stable. Several participants indicated that recent economic news, although leading them to mark down somewhat their estimates of economic growth in late 2013 as well as their assessments of likely growth in the first quarter of 2014, had not prompted a significant revision of their projections of moderate economic growth over coming quarters.

Most participants noted that unusually severe winter weather had held down economic activity during the early months of the year. Business contacts in various parts of the country reported a number of weather-induced disruptions, including reduced manufacturing activity due to lost workdays, interruptions to supply chains of inputs and delivery of final products, and lower-than-expected retail sales. Participants expected economic activity to pick up as the weather-related disruptions to spending and production dissipated. A few participants, however, highlighted factors other than weather that had likely contributed to the slowdown during the first quarter, including slower growth in net exports following its unusually large positive contribution to growth in the fourth quarter of 2013. Moreover, it was noted that some of the pickup in economic growth that had appeared to have been indicated by the data available at the January meeting had been reversed by subsequent data revisions. For many participants, the outlook for economic activity over coming quarters had changed little, on balance, since the time of the December meeting.

Housing activity remained slow over the intermeeting period. Although unfavorable weather had contributed to the recent disappointing performance of housing, a few participants suggested that last year's rise in mortgage interest rates might have produced a larger-than-expected reduction in home sales. In addition, it was noted that the return of house prices to more-normal levels could be damping the pace of the housing recovery, and that home affordability has been reduced for some prospective buyers. Slackening demand from institutional investors was cited as another factor behind the decline in home sales. Nonetheless, the underlying fundamentals, including population growth and household formation, were viewed as pointing to a continuing recovery of the housing market.

In their discussion of labor market developments, participants noted further improvement, on balance, in labor market conditions. The unemployment rate had moved down in recent months, as had broader measures of unemployment and underemployment. Other labor market indicators, such as payrolls and hiring and quit rates, while not all showing the same extent of improvement, also pointed to ongoing gains in labor markets. Going forward, participants continued to expect a gradual decline in the unemployment rate over the medium term, with judgments differing somewhat across participants about the likely pace of the decline. It was also noted that uncertainty about the trend rate of productivity growth was making it difficult to ascertain the rate of real GDP growth that would be associated with progress in reducing the unemployment rate.

While there was general agreement that slack remains in the labor market, participants expressed a range of views regarding the amount of slack and how well the unemployment rate performs as a summary indicator of labor market conditions. Several participants pointed to a number of factors--including the low labor force participation rate and the still-high rates of longer-duration unemployment and of workers employed part time for economic reasons--as suggesting that there might be considerably more labor market slack than indicated by the unemployment rate alone. A couple of other participants, however, saw reasons to believe that slack was more limited, viewing the decline in the participation rate as primarily reflecting demographic trends with little role for cyclical factors and observing that broader measures of unemployment had registered declines in the past year that were comparable with the decline in the standard measure. Several participants cited low nominal wage growth as pointing to the existence of continued labor market slack. Participants also noted the debate in the research literature and elsewhere concerning whether long-term unemployment differs materially from short-term unemployment in its implications for wage and price pressures.

Inflation continued to run below the Committee's 2 percent longer-run objective over the intermeeting period. A couple of participants expressed concern that inflation might not return to 2 percent in the next few years and suggested that a protracted period of inflation below 2 percent raised questions about whether the Committee was providing an appropriate degree of monetary accommodation. One of these participants suggested that persistently low inflation was a clear reflection of a sizable shortfall of employment from its maximum level. A number of participants noted that a pickup in nominal wage growth would be consistent with labor market conditions moving closer to normal and would support the return of consumer price inflation to the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal. However, a couple of other participants suggested that factors other than economic slack had played a notable role in holding down inflation of late, including unusually slow growth in prices of medical services. Most participants expected inflation to return to 2 percent over the next few years, supported by stable inflation expectations and the continued gradual recovery in economic activity.

Several participants pointed to international developments that bear watching. It was suggested that slower growth in China had likely already put some downward pressure on world commodity prices, and a couple of participants observed that a larger-than-expected slowdown in economic growth in China could have adverse implications for global economic growth. In addition, it was noted that events in Ukraine were likely to have little direct effect on the U.S. economic outlook but might have negative implications for global growth if they escalated and led to a protracted period of geopolitical tensions in that region.

In their discussion of recent financial developments, participants saw financial conditions as generally consistent with the Committee's policy intentions. However, several participants mentioned trends that, if continued, could become a concern from the perspective of financial stability. A couple of participants pointed to the decline in credit spreads to relatively low levels by historical standards; one of these participants noted the risk of either a sharp rise in spreads, which could have negative repercussions for aggregate demand, or a continuation of the decline in spreads, which could undermine financial stability over time. One participant voiced concern about high levels of margin debt and of equity market valuations as well as a notable shift into commodity investments. Another participant stressed the growth in consumer credit to less creditworthy households.

In their discussion of monetary policy going forward, participants focused primarily on possible changes to the Committee's forward guidance for the federal funds rate. Almost all participants agreed that it was appropriate at this meeting to update the forward guidance, in part because the unemployment rate was seen as likely to fall below its 6-1/2 percent threshold value before long. Most participants preferred replacing the numerical thresholds with a qualitative description of the factors that would influence the Committee's decision to begin raising the federal funds rate. One participant, however, favored retaining the existing threshold language on the grounds that removing it before the unemployment rate reached 6-1/2 percent could be misinterpreted as a signal that the path of policy going forward would be less accommodative. Another participant favored introducing new quantitative thresholds of 5-1/2 percent for the unemployment rate and 2-1/4 percent for projected inflation. A few participants proposed adding new language in which the Committee would indicate its willingness to keep rates low if projected inflation remained persistently below the Committee's 2 percent longer-run objective; these participants suggested that the inclusion of this quantitative element in the forward guidance would demonstrate the Committee's commitment to defend its inflation objective from below as well as from above. Other participants, however, judged that it was already well understood that the Committee recognizes that inflation persistently below its 2 percent objective could pose risks to economic performance. Most participants therefore did not favor adding new quantitative language, preferring to shift to qualitative language that would describe the Committee's likely reaction to the state of the economy.

Most participants also believed that, as part of the process of clarifying the Committee's future policy intentions, it would be appropriate at this time for the Committee to provide additional guidance in its postmeeting statement regarding the likely behavior of the federal funds rate after its first increase. For example, the statement could indicate that the Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run. Participants observed that a number of factors were likely to have contributed to a persistent decline in the level of interest rates consistent with attaining and maintaining the Committee's objectives. In particular, participants cited higher precautionary savings by U.S. households following the financial crisis, higher global levels of savings, demographic changes, slower growth in potential output, and continued restraint on the availability of credit. A few participants suggested that new language along these lines could instead be introduced when the first increase in the federal funds rate had drawn closer or after the Committee had further discussed the reasons for anticipating a relatively low federal funds rate during the period of policy firming. A number of participants noted the overall upward shift since December in participants' projections of the federal funds rate included in the March SEP, with some expressing concern that this component of the SEP could be misconstrued as indicating a move by the Committee to a less accommodative reaction function. However, several participants noted that the increase in the median projection overstated the shift in the projections. In addition, a number of participants observed that an upward shift was arguably warranted by the improvement in participants' outlooks for the labor market since December and therefore need not be viewed as signifying a less accommodative reaction function. Most participants favored providing an explicit indication in the statement that the new forward guidance, taken as a whole, did not imply a change in the Committee's policy intentions, on the grounds that such an indication could help forestall misinterpretation of the new forward guidance.

Steven Hansen

Source: Federal Reserve



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