Participants' Views on Current Conditions and the Economic Outlook
In their discussion of the economic situation and the outlook, meeting participants viewed the information received over the intermeeting period as indicating that economic activity was expanding moderately after little change in the first quarter of the year. Early in 2015, a number of factors--including unfavorable weather in parts of the country and labor disputes at West Coast ports--temporarily held down real GDP; several analy-ses also suggested that difficulties with seasonal adjustment likely contributed to an underestimate of first-quarter real GDP. The unemployment rate was unchanged over the period between the April and June meetings, but payroll employment posted solid gains, and, on balance, a range of labor market indicators suggested that underutilization of labor resources diminished somewhat. Although participants marked down their expectations for the rate of increase in real GDP over the first half of the year, their projections for economic growth in the second half of 2015 and over 2016 and 2017 were broadly similar to those prepared for the March meeting. Under their respective assumptions about appropriate monetary policy, participants generally expected real GDP to expand at a rate sufficient to continue to move labor market conditions toward levels judged consistent with the Committee's dual mandate. Inflation readings available since the April meeting continued to run below the Committee's longer-run objective, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices and continued decreases in prices of non-energy imports. However, energy prices appeared to have stabilized. Participants continued to project a gradual rise in inflation toward 2 percent over the medium term as the labor market improved further and the transitory effects of earlier declines in energy and import prices dissipated.
In discussing how to interpret the reported weakness in real GDP during the first quarter, participants considered alternative estimates of real economic activity based on various data-filtering models maintained by Board and Reserve Bank staff. These models yielded a range of estimates, but, overall, they suggested that real activity in the first quarter was likely stronger than the then-current official estimate of real GDP. Some participants indicated that the higher alternative estimates seemed more consistent with the increases in real gross domestic income and private domestic final purchases in the first quarter as well as the strength in employment and hours worked. However, the alternative estimates left open the question of when and to what extent the seasonal adjustment and other measurement issues associated with official estimates of GDP in the first quarter might unwind.
While participants generally saw the risks to their projections of economic activity and the labor market as balanced, they gave a number of reasons to be cautious in assessing the outlook. Some pointed to the risk that the weaker-than-anticipated rise in economic activity over the first half of the year could reflect factors that might continue to restrain sales and production, and that economic activity might not have sufficient momentum to sustain progress toward the Committee's objectives. In particular, they were concerned that consumers could remain cautious or that the drag on sectors affected by lower energy prices and the higher dollar could persist. Others, however, viewed the strength in the labor market in recent months as potentially signaling a stronger-than-expected bounceback in economic activity. Several mentioned their uncertainty about whether Greece and its official creditors would reach an agreement and about the likely pace of economic growth abroad, particularly in China and other emerging market economies. Other concerns were related to whether the apparent weakness in productivity growth recently would be reversed or continue. On the one hand, a rebound in productivity growth in coming quarters might restrain hiring and slow the improvement in labor market conditions. On the other hand, if productivity growth remained weak, the labor market might tighten more quickly and inflation might rise more rapidly than anticipated.
At the time of the April meeting, the increase in consumer spending was estimated to have been unexpectedly weak in the first quarter following strong gains in the second half of 2014. The additional information that had become available since then, including more complete estimates of outlays for services and revised data on retail sales, indicated that consumer spending was somewhat better than previously reported, rising at a moderate pace in the first quarter. In addition, the strong rebound in motor vehicle sales and the solid gain in retail sales in May suggested that the pace of consumer spending was picking up in the current quarter. Moreover, a number of fundamental factors determining consumer spending remained positive, including the boost to real income from the earlier decline in energy prices, low interest rates, sustained moderate gains in wage and salary income, stronger household balance sheets, and the high levels of households' confidence about the economic outlook and about their income prospects. Many participants anticipated that these factors would support a solid pace of consumer spending going forward. However, others remained concerned that consumers had not increased their spending as much as expected in response to the drop in energy prices, and that the rise in the saving rate since last fall may signal more cautious behavior among households that might last for some time.
A number of participants noted that housing starts and permits rose considerably in recent months, and indicators of sales activity turned more positive. Nonetheless, home construction was still below the trend that would appear consistent with population growth, sales remained at low levels, and credit availability was still relatively tight.
Reports on manufacturing in a number of regions offered some signs that the sector was no longer weakening, with a couple of Districts' diffusion indexes turning up. Still, cutbacks in spending on drilling and mining equipment, slow demand for other business equipment, and the drag on exports from slow foreign demand and previous increases in the dollar continued to weigh on industrial production. Motor vehicle production was highlighted as a bright spot. In those Districts in which activity had been adversely affected by the drop in energy prices, drilling activity was either contracting less rapidly or was stabilizing. Higher oil production could continue to hold down energy prices in the near term, but industry contacts anticipated some recovery in prices over the coming year, which should stem layoffs and cuts in capital spending in the energy sector. Agricultural production in several Districts appeared likely to benefit from wet weather, but weak farm income continued to weigh on the sector. Several participants reported that the services sector was a relative source of strength in their Districts. In general, business contacts continued to express optimism about stronger sales and production in the second half of the year.
In their discussion of labor market conditions, participants offered their views on recent developments and the progress that had occurred in reducing underutilization of labor resources. They generally agreed that labor market conditions had improved somewhat over the intermeeting period, variously citing solid increases in payroll employment and job openings; low levels of unemployment insurance claims; and, despite an unchanged unemployment rate, some further reduction in broader measures of underutilization, particularly among those not actively searching for jobs, but available and interested in work. Several participants pointed to some favorable trends that had developed over a longer period, such as the flattening out of the labor force participation rate and a shift in the flow of workers into more stable and higher-skilled jobs. A number of participants noted that the outlook for continued job gains was evident in reports on hiring intentions from business contacts in their Districts who indicated that more firms planned additions to their payrolls over the coming year than a year earlier. While the cumulative improvements in labor market conditions over the past year had been substantial, most participants judged that further progress would be required to eliminate underutilization of labor resources; some of them anticipated that the utilization gap would close around the end of the year. Several other participants indicated that, in their view, labor market slack had already been largely eliminated.
The ongoing rise in labor demand appeared to have begun to result in a firming of wage increases. Recent readings on the employment cost index, hourly compensation, and average hourly earnings of employees suggested some acceleration in wages. According to business contacts in a number of Districts, many firms looking for new workers said they had been raising wages selectively to attract them; some had also begun to raise wages more generally. However, several participants pointed out that, even with the recent upturn, wage increases remain subdued.
Participants discussed how the incoming information regarding inflation influenced their expectations for reaching the FOMC's 2 percent inflation objective over the medium term. Total PCE inflation continued to run below the Committee's objective. However, participants noted that the apparent stabilization of crude oil prices and the foreign exchange value of the dollar would reduce the downward pressure on inflation from falling prices of energy and imported goods. Core PCE price inflation, as measured on a 12-month change basis, had slowed slightly from an already low rate. However, several participants pointed out that the 3-month change in that index had firmed recently, signaling some improvement in the inflation outlook. In addition, some cited alternative measures of inflation, such as the trimmed mean and median consumer price indexes (CPIs) and the trimmed mean PCE, which continued to run at higher levels than overall PCE inflation. Survey measures of longer-term inflation expectations remained stable, and market-based measures of inflation compensation, while still low, were higher than earlier in the year. Nonetheless, a couple of participants continued to be concerned that the extended period of low inflation might persist and feed through to inflation expectations, citing estimates from various inflation forecasting models and the downtrend in the 10-year CPI projections in the Survey of Professional Forecasters. Participants continued to anticipate that, with appropriate monetary policy, inflation would move up to or toward the Committee's objective over the medium term. Among the factors influencing the trajectories of their inflation forecasts were their outlooks for the pace of real activity, labor market conditions and wage developments, and inflation expectations.
In their discussion of financial market developments over the intermeeting period, several participants commented on the rise in the 10-year Treasury yield, which accompanied a steeper run-up in the 10-year German yield. The sharp rise in German yields appeared to reflect a retracing of the earlier decline in German rates to unsustainably low levels. It was noted that the increase in U.S. yields was not especially large in a historical context and that volatility in U.S. fixed-income markets was still somewhat below pre-crisis levels. However, many participants expressed concern that a failure of Greece and its official creditors to resolve their differences could result in disruptions in financial markets in the euro area, with possible spillover effects on the United States. And some participants reiterated the importance of effective Committee communications in reducing the likelihood of an outsized financial market reaction around the time that policy normalization begins.
During their discussion of economic conditions and monetary policy, participants commented on a number of considerations associated with the timing and pace of policy normalization. Most participants judged that the conditions for policy firming had not yet been achieved; a number of them cautioned against a premature decision. Many participants emphasized that, in order to determine that the criteria for beginning policy normalization had been met, they would need additional information indicating that economic growth was strengthening, that labor market conditions were continuing to improve, and that inflation was moving back toward the Committee's objective. Other concerns that were mentioned were the potential erosion of the Committee's credibility if inflation were to persist below 2 percent and the limited ability of monetary policy to offset downside shocks to inflation and economic activity when the federal funds rate was at its effective lower bound. Some participants viewed the economic conditions for increasing the target range for the federal funds rate as having been met or were confident that they would be met shortly. They identified several possible risks associated with delaying the start of policy firming. One such risk was the possibility that the Committee might need to tighten more rapidly than financial markets currently anticipate--an outcome that could be associated with a significant rise in longer-term interest rates or heightened financial market volatility. Another was that prolonging a high degree of monetary policy accommodation might result in an undesirable increase in inflation or might have adverse consequences for financial and macroeconomic stability. It was also pointed out that a prompt start to normalization would likely convey the Committee's confidence in prospects for the economy. During the discussion, a number of participants recommended that, around the time of the first increase in the target range, the Committee consider how it would update its communications regarding the likely path of the federal funds rate, with several indicating that the Committee should remain data dependent in making adjustments to the target range.
Participants also discussed plans for publishing operational details regarding the implementation of monetary policy around the time of the first increase in the target range. All participants supported a staff proposal for the Federal Reserve to issue an implementation note that would communicate separately from the Committee's postmeeting policy statement the specific measures to be employed to implement the FOMC's decision about the stance of policy. Following scheduled FOMC meetings, this implementation note would be released at the same time as the Committee's postmeeting statement; it would convey operational details regarding the settings of the policy tools and the changes in administered rates being employed to achieve the Committee's desired stance of policy, and it would include the FOMC's domestic policy directive to the Desk. If adjustments to policy tools or administered rates subsequently proved necessary to implement an unchanged policy stance, the implementation note could be revised without altering the Committee's policy statement. Participants agreed that this strategy provided a number of advantages, including focusing the Committee's postmeeting statement on information about economic conditions and the stance of monetary policy; communicating the details of policymakers' operational decisions, including the FOMC's domestic policy directive, in one place; reducing the risk that Federal Reserve communications regarding any technical adjustments to the operation of its policy tools after the commencement of policy firming might be mistaken as conveying information about the stance of policy; and emphasizing that operational decisions regarding the Federal Reserve's policy tools will be made in concert by the Federal Reserve Board and the FOMC with the aim of maintaining the federal funds rate in the range established by the FOMC. Participants also discussed how the language of the domestic policy directive could be revised when the first increase in the target range for the federal funds rate becomes appropriate. It was noted that the Committee might, in addition to providing specific instructions to the Desk regarding operations at that time, update other language in the directive.