Participants' Views on Current Conditions and the Economic Outlook
In conjunction with this FOMC meeting, members of the Board of Governors and 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 2016 through 2018 and over the longer run. Each participant's projections were conditioned on his or her 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 projections and policy assessments are described in the Summary of Economic Projections, which is an addendum to these minutes.
In their discussion of the economic situation and the outlook, meeting participants viewed the information received over the intermeeting period as suggesting that economic activity had been expanding moderately despite the global economic and financial developments of recent months. Household spending had been increasing at a moderate rate, and the housing sector had improved further; however, business fixed investment and net exports had been soft. A range of labor market indicators, including strong employment growth and rising labor force participation, pointed to a further strengthening of the labor market. Participants generally saw the data on economic activity and labor market conditions as broadly consistent with their earlier expectations. Inflation picked up in recent months, but it continued to run below the Committee's 2 percent longer-run objective. Market-based measures of inflation compensation remained low, while survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations were little changed, on balance, in recent months. Early in the intermeeting period, concerns among investors about the global economic outlook appeared to trigger a sharp reduction in their risk-taking. Financial conditions deteriorated, with equity prices falling and credit spreads on riskier corporate bonds widening. Subsequently, investor sentiment rebounded, and domestic and global financial conditions eased on net over the intermeeting period.
With respect to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market, participants shared the assessment that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, real GDP would continue to increase at a moderate rate over the medium term and labor market indicators would continue to strengthen. Participants observed that strong job gains in recent months had reduced concerns about a possible slowing of progress in the labor market. Many participants, however, anticipated that relative strength in household spending would be partially offset by weakness in net exports associated with lackluster foreign growth and the appreciation of the dollar since mid-2014. In addition, business fixed investment seemed likely to remain sluggish. Furthermore, participants generally saw global economic and financial developments as continuing to pose risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market in the United States. In particular, several participants expressed the view that the underlying factors abroad that led to a sharp, though temporary, deterioration in global financial conditions earlier this year had not been fully resolved and thus posed ongoing downside risks. Several participants also noted the possibility that economic activity or labor market conditions could turn out to be stronger than anticipated. For example, strong expansion of household demand could result in rapid employment growth and overly tight resource utilization, particularly if productivity gains remained sluggish.
Notwithstanding the downward revisions to recent retail sales data, participants were encouraged by the moderate average growth of consumer spending over recent quarters. Continued increases in household spending had buoyed growth of overall aggregate demand despite the volatility in financial markets. Among the various categories of household spending, participants noted that motor vehicle sales remained particularly strong, albeit with some support from price discounting and other incentives. Looking ahead, participants generally expected consumer spending to continue to rise moderately. Solid gains in employment and income, the relatively high ratio of household wealth to income, low gasoline prices, and a high level of consumer confidence were seen as factors that should contribute to moderate growth in consumer spending.
Reports on the housing sector were mixed, with some participants noting a weakening of housing activity in regions adversely affected by the decline in energy prices. Nonetheless, fundamentals for housing activity were seen as strong except for a reported shortage of buildable lots in some areas. Some participants reported that contacts were generally upbeat about the outlook for housing construction in their Districts, and participants anticipated that activity in the housing sector would continue to expand this year.
In contrast, several participants noted recent softness in business fixed investment and signs that the sluggish growth would continue. Orders and shipments for nondefense capital goods had been about flat. Capital expenditures continued to be depressed by the contraction in the energy sector. Capital spending plans appeared to remain soft. The possible adverse effects on investment spending of concerns about global growth and the associated volatility in financial markets were also noted. District reports on commercial construction activity, however, were generally positive.
With regard to the external sector, a number of participants said that they expected declines in net exports to continue to subtract from real GDP growth, reflecting weak foreign activity as well as the earlier appreciation of the dollar. The outlook for growth abroad had dimmed in recent months, suggesting a more persistent drag on growth of U.S. exports. A couple of participants commented that emerging market economies faced an extended period of less rapid export growth, reflecting slower economic growth in many advanced foreign economies and in China. It also was noted that weak growth abroad could lead to further appreciation of the dollar.
In discussing domestic business conditions, several participants noted that their contacts saw rising sales in the retail sector and that reports from firms in the services sector were mostly strong. In some Districts, surveys suggested that manufacturing activity had bottomed out. However, a number of participants commented that previous declines in commodity and energy prices, along with the earlier appreciation of the dollar and weak foreign activity, continued to weigh on manufacturing activity. A few participants also noted that such factors were reducing farm incomes in their Districts.
During the intermeeting period, the labor market strengthened further. In their comments on labor market conditions, participants cited strong payroll gains and a further tick down in the civilian unemployment rate. Broader measures of labor force underutilization had also shown progress, including an increase in labor force participation. The quits rate had returned to its pre-recession level, as had households' perceptions of job availability and firms' assessments of the difficulty of filling jobs, providing further evidence of improved labor market conditions. Some participants judged that current labor market conditions were at or near those consistent with maximum sustainable employment, noting that the unemployment rate was at or below their estimates of its longer-run normal level and citing anecdotal reports of labor shortages or increased wage pressures. In contrast, some other participants judged that the economy had not yet reached maximum employment. They noted several indicators other than the unemployment rate that pointed to remaining underutilization of labor resources; these indicators included the still-high rate of involuntary part-time employment and the low level of the employment-to-population ratio for prime-age workers. The surprisingly limited extent to which aggregate data indicated upward pressure on wage growth also suggested some remaining slack in labor markets.
Participants commented on the recent increase in inflation. Some participants saw the increase as consistent with a firming trend in inflation. Some others, however, expressed the view that the increase was unlikely to be sustained, in part because it appeared to reflect, to an appreciable degree, increases in prices that had been relatively volatile in the past. Participants continued to anticipate that inflation would run below the Committee's 2 percent objective in the near term but that, as the transitory effects of earlier declines in energy and import prices dissipated and the labor market strengthened further, inflation would rise to 2 percent over the medium term. Several participants indicated that the persistence of global disinflationary pressures or the possibility that inflation expectations were moving lower continued to pose downside risks to the inflation outlook. A few others expressed the view that there were also risks that could lead to inflation running higher than anticipated; for example, overly tight resource utilization could push inflation above the Committee's 2 percent goal, particularly if productivity gains remained sluggish.
Participants discussed readings from various market- and survey-based measures of longer-run inflation expectations. Some survey-based measures had edged down, while others had remained stable and one had edged up; such measures were little changed, on balance, in recent months. The market-based measures of inflation compensation that had declined earlier were still at low levels. Several participants noted that some of the softness in the market-based measures likely reflected changes in risk and liquidity premiums, and that some of the survey-based measures appeared to be excessively sensitive to movements in gasoline prices. Some participants concluded that longer-run inflation expectations remained reasonably stable, but some others expressed concern that longer-run inflation expectations may have already moved lower, or that they might do so if inflation was to persist for much longer at a rate below the Committee's objective.
Participants discussed the implications of the global economic and financial developments of the past few months for the medium-term outlook, and they offered different characterizations of the risks to the U.S. economy stemming from these developments. Many participants expressed a view that the global economic and financial situation still posed appreciable downside risks to the domestic economic outlook. Some noted that recent financial market turbulence provided an important reminder that the ability of central banks to offset the effects of adverse economic shocks might be limited, particularly by the low level of policy interest rates in most advanced economies. In contrast, a few noted that the actions taken by several foreign central banks in recent weeks to increase monetary accommodation likely had helped mitigate downside risks to the global outlook. Nonetheless, many participants indicated that the heightened global risks and the asymmetric ability of monetary policy to respond to them warranted caution in making adjustments to the stance of U.S. monetary policy.
Participants generally agreed that the incoming information indicated that the U.S. economy had been resilient to recent global economic and financial developments, and that the domestic economic indicators that had become available in recent weeks had been mostly consistent with their expectations. Moreover, the sharp asset price movements that occurred earlier in the year had been reversed to a large extent, but longer-term interest rates and market participants' expectations for the future path of the federal funds rate remained lower. Taking these developments into account, participants generally judged that the medium-term outlook for domestic demand was not appreciably different than it had been when the Committee met in December. However, most participants, while recognizing the likely positive effects of recent policy actions abroad, saw foreign economic growth as likely to run at a somewhat slower pace than previously expected, a development that probably would further restrain growth in U.S. exports and tend to damp overall aggregate demand. Several participants also cited wider credit spreads as a factor that was likely to restrain growth in demand. Accordingly, many participants expressed the view that a somewhat lower path for the federal funds rate than they had projected in December now seemed most likely to be appropriate for achieving the Committee's dual mandate. Many participants also noted that a somewhat lower projected interest rate path was one reason for the relatively small revisions in their medium-term projections for economic activity, unemployment, and inflation.
Several participants also argued for proceeding cautiously in reducing policy accommodation because they saw the risks to the U.S. economy stemming from developments abroad as tilted to the downside or because they were concerned that longer-term inflation expectations might be slipping lower, skewing the risks to the outlook for inflation to the downside. Many participants noted that, with the target range for the federal funds rate only slightly above zero, the FOMC continued to have little room to ease monetary policy through conventional means if economic activity or inflation turned out to be materially weaker than anticipated, but could raise rates quickly if the economy appeared to be overheating or if inflation was to increase significantly more rapidly than anticipated. In their view, this asymmetry made it prudent to wait for additional information regarding the underlying strength of economic activity and prospects for inflation before taking another step to reduce policy accommodation.
For all of these reasons, most participants judged it appropriate to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1/4 to 1/2 percent at this meeting while noting that global economic and financial developments continued to pose risks. These participants saw their judgment as consistent with the Committee's data-dependent approach to setting monetary policy; it was noted that, in this context, the relevant data include not only domestic economic releases, but also information about developments abroad and changes in financial conditions that bear on the economic outlook. A couple of participants, however, saw an increase in the target range to 1/2 to 3/4 percent as appropriate at this meeting, citing evidence that the economy was continuing to expand at a moderate rate despite developments abroad and earlier volatility in financial conditions, continued improvement in labor market conditions, the firming of inflation over recent months, and the apparent leveling-off of oil prices. In their judgment, increasing the target range for the federal funds rate too gradually in the near term risked having to raise it quickly later, which could cause economic and financial strains at that time.
Participants agreed that their ongoing assessments of the data and the implications for the outlook, rather than calendar dates, would determine the timing and pace of future adjustments to the stance of monetary policy. They expressed a range of views about the likelihood that incoming information would make an adjustment appropriate at the time of their next meeting. A number of participants judged that the headwinds restraining growth and holding down the neutral rate of interest were likely to subside only slowly. In light of this expectation and their assessment of the risks to the economic outlook, several expressed the view that a cautious approach to raising rates would be prudent or noted their concern that raising the target range as soon as April would signal a sense of urgency they did not think appropriate. In contrast, some other participants indicated that an increase in the target range at the Committee's next meeting might well be warranted if the incoming economic data remained consistent with their expectations for moderate growth in output, further strengthening of the labor market, and inflation rising to 2 percent over the medium term.