Participants' Views on Current Conditions and the Economic Outlook
In conjunction with this FOMC meeting, members of the Board of Governors and participating Federal Reserve Bank presidents submitted their projections of the most likely outcomes for real GDP growth, the unemployment rate, inflation, and the federal funds rate for each year from 2015 through 2017 and over the longer run, conditional on 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.
In their discussion of the economic situation and the outlook, meeting participants regarded the information received over the intermeeting period as indicating that the pace of economic activity had moderated somewhat. Labor market conditions continued to improve, with strong job gains and a lower unemployment rate, and participants judged that underutilization of labor resources was continuing to diminish. A number of participants noted that slow growth of productivity or the labor force could reconcile the moderation in economic growth with the solid performance of some labor market indicators. Participants expected that, over the medium term, real economic activity would expand at a moderate pace and there would be additional improvements in labor market conditions. Participants generally regarded the net effect of declines in energy prices as likely to be positive for economic activity and employment in the United States, although a couple noted that physical limits on the accumulation of stocks of crude oil could result in further downward pressure on prices and reduce U.S. oil and gas production and investment. Inflation had declined further below the Committee's longer-run objective, largely reflecting declines in energy prices, and was expected to stay near its recent low level in the near term. Market-based measures of inflation compensation 5 to 10 years ahead remained low, while survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations had remained stable. Participants generally anticipated that inflation would rise gradually toward the Committee's 2 percent objective as the labor market improved further and the transitory effects of energy price declines and other factors dissipated. While almost all participants noted potential risks to the economic outlook resulting from foreign economic and financial developments, most saw the risks to the outlook for economic growth and the labor market as nearly balanced.
Household spending appeared to have slowed somewhat over the intermeeting period, with some participants suggesting that the recent softness in spending indicators was likely due in part to transitory factors, such as unseasonably cold winter weather in parts of the country. Some participants expressed the view that growth in consumer spending over the medium term would be supported by the strong labor market and rising income, increases in wealth and improvements in household balance sheets, lower gasoline prices, and gains in consumer confidence. Although activity in the housing sector remained sluggish, a few participants were cautiously optimistic that recent higher rates of household formation, together with low mortgage rates, would enable a faster pace of recovery.
Business contacts in many parts of the country continued to express optimism about prospects for future sales or investment. However, there were widespread reports of a slowdown in growth during the first quarter across a range of industries, partly reflecting severe winter weather in some regions as well as labor disputes at West Coast ports that temporarily disrupted some supply chains. In several parts of the country, persistently low oil prices had resulted in declines in drilling and delays in planned capital expenditures in the energy sector, and had negatively affected state government revenues. Manufacturing contacts in a couple of regions reported a softening in export sales. In contrast, service-sector activity had been reasonably strong in several parts of the country, as had auto sales, and the increase in household purchasing power from lower gasoline prices was expected to boost retail sales. Labor market conditions continued to improve in most regions, with wage pressures generally reported to be modest.
In their discussion of the foreign economic outlook, several participants noted that the dollar's further appreciation over the intermeeting period was likely to restrain U.S. net exports and economic growth for a time. A few participants suggested that accommodative policy actions by a number of foreign central banks could lead to a further appreciation of the dollar, but another noted that such actions had also strengthened the outlook for growth abroad, which would bolster U.S. exports. Participants pointed to a number of risks to the international economic outlook, including the slowdown in growth in China, fiscal and financial problems in Greece, and geopolitical tensions.
Participants saw broad-based improvement in labor market conditions over the intermeeting period, including strong gains in payroll employment and a further reduction in the unemployment rate. Several participants judged, based on the improvement in a variety of labor market indicators, that the economy was making further progress toward the Committee's goal of maximum employment. Nonetheless, many judged that some degree of labor market slack remained, as evidenced by the low rate of labor force participation, still-elevated involuntary part-time employment, or subdued growth in wages. A few of them noted that continued modest wage growth could prompt them to reduce their estimates of the longer-run normal rate of unemployment. A few participants observed that the absence of a notable pickup in wages might not be a useful yardstick for evaluating the degree of remaining slack because of the long lags between declines in unemployment and the response of wages or uncertainty about trend productivity growth. One participant, however, saw some evidence of rising wage growth and suggested that compositional changes in the labor force could be masking underlying wage pressures, particularly as measured by average hourly earnings.
Many participants judged that the inflation data received over the intermeeting period had been about in line with their expectations that inflation would move temporarily further below the Committee's goal, largely reflecting declines in energy prices and lower prices of non-oil imports. They continued to expect that inflation would move up toward the Committee's 2 percent objective over the medium term as the effects of these transitory factors waned and conditions in the labor market improved further. Survey-based measures of inflation expectations had remained stable, and market-based measures of inflation compensation over the longer term were about unchanged from the time of the January meeting, although they had exhibited some volatility over the intermeeting period. It was noted that the market-based measures had tracked quite closely the movements in crude oil prices over the period, first rising and then falling back. Participants offered various explanations for this correlation, including that market-based measures of inflation compensation were responding to the same global developments as oil prices, that these measures were capturing changes in risk or liquidity premiums, or that inflation-indexed securities were subject to mispricing. A couple of participants pointed out that the movements in crude oil prices and market-based inflation compensation measures had not been particularly well aligned over a longer historical period, or that information gleaned from inflation derivatives suggested a substantial increase in the probability that inflation would remain well below the Committee's target over the next decade. One of them judged that the low level of inflation compensation could reflect increased concern on the part of investors about adverse outcomes in which low inflation was accompanied by weak economic activity, and that it was important not to dismiss this possible interpretation.
In their discussion of communications regarding the path of the federal funds rate over the medium term, almost all participants favored removing from the forward guidance in the Committee's postmeeting statement the indication that the Committee would be patient in beginning to normalize the stance of monetary policy. These participants continued to think that an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate was unlikely in April. But, with continued improvement in economic conditions, they preferred language that would provide the Committee with the flexibility to subsequently adjust the target range for the federal funds rate on a meeting-by-meeting basis. It was noted that eliminating the reference to being patient would be appropriate in light of the considerable progress achieved toward the Committee's objective of maximum employment, and that such a change would not indicate that the Committee had decided on the timing of the initial increase in the target range for the federal funds rate. Participants generally judged that the appropriate timing of liftoff would depend on their assessment of improvement in the labor market and their degree of confidence that inflation would move back to the Committee's 2 percent objective over the medium term, and that it would be helpful to convey to the public this data-dependent approach to monetary policy. A few participants emphasized that the decision regarding the appropriate timing of liftoff should take account of the risks that could be associated with departing from the effective lower bound later and those that could be associated with departing earlier. One participant did not favor the change to the forward guidance because, with inflation well below the Committee's 2 percent longer-run target, the announcement of a meeting-by-meeting approach to policy could lead to a tightening of financial conditions that would slow progress toward the Committee's objectives.
Participants expressed a range of views about how they would assess the outlook for inflation and when they might deem it appropriate to begin removing policy accommodation. It was noted that there were no simple criteria for such a judgment, and, in particular, that, in a context of progress toward maximum employment and reasonable confidence that inflation will move back to 2 percent over the medium term, the normalization process could be initiated prior to seeing increases in core price inflation or wage inflation. Further improvement in the labor market, a stabilization of energy prices, and a leveling out of the foreign exchange value of the dollar were all seen as helpful in establishing confidence that inflation would turn up. Several participants judged that the economic data and outlook were likely to warrant beginning normalization at the June meeting. However, others anticipated that the effects of energy price declines and the dollar's appreciation would continue to weigh on inflation in the near term, suggesting that conditions likely would not be appropriate to begin raising rates until later in the year, and a couple of participants suggested that the economic outlook likely would not call for liftoff until 2016. With regard to communications about the timing of the first increase in the target range for the federal funds rate, two participants thought that the Committee should seek to signal its policy intentions at the meeting before liftoff appeared likely, but two others judged that doing so would be inconsistent with a meeting-by-meeting approach. Finally, many participants commented that it would be desirable to provide additional information to the public about the Committee's strategy for policy after the beginning of normalization. Some participants emphasized that the stance of policy would remain highly accommodative even after the first increase in the target range for the federal funds rate, and several noted that they expected economic developments would call for a fairly gradual pace of normalization or that a data-dependent approach would not necessarily dictate increases in the target range at every meeting.