Participants' Views on Current Conditions and the Economic Outlook
In their discussion of the economic situation and the outlook, meeting participants agreed that the information received over the intermeeting period indicated that the labor market had strengthened and that economic activity had been expanding at a moderate rate. Job gains were strong in June following weak growth in May. On balance, payrolls and other labor market indicators pointed to some increase in labor utilization in recent months. Household spending had been growing strongly, but business fixed investment had been soft. Inflation had continued to run below the Committee's 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports. Market-based measures of inflation compensation remained low; most survey-based measures of longer-run inflation expectations were little changed, on balance, in recent months. Domestic and global asset prices were volatile early in the intermeeting period following the vote by the United Kingdom to leave the EU, but they subsequently recovered their earlier declines, and, on net, U.S. financial conditions eased over the intermeeting period.
Participants generally indicated that their economic forecasts had changed little over the intermeeting period. They continued to anticipate that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity would expand at a moderate pace and labor market indicators would strengthen. Inflation was expected to remain low in the near term, in part because of earlier declines in energy prices, but to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of past declines in energy and import prices dissipated and the labor market strengthened further. Participants viewed the near-term risks to the U.S. economic outlook as having diminished. However, some noted that the Brexit vote had created uncertainty about the medium- to longer-run outlook for foreign economies that could affect economic and financial conditions in the United States. Participants generally agreed that the Committee should continue to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.
Growth in consumer spending was estimated to have rebounded in the second quarter from the slow pace in the first quarter, as monthly gains in retail sales were strong through June. Sales of new motor vehicles remained at a high level, on average, in the second quarter, although sales appeared to be supported by substantial incentives for consumers and by business fleet purchases. With the second-quarter pickup in spending, real PCE appeared to have risen over the first half of the year at a rate consistent with the positive trends in fundamental determinants of household spending. Participants cited a number of factors that had likely been supporting household spending, including solid real income growth, gains in house and equity values, low gasoline prices, and favorable levels of consumer confidence.
Residential investment posted a strong increase in the first quarter of the year, but data on starts of new single-family homes indicated that outlays likely edged down in the second quarter. Data on permit issuance through June suggested that new-home building activity might rise only slowly in the near term. However, participants commented on a number of factors suggesting that the housing sector was likely to continue to improve, albeit gradually: Rising sales of existing homes, responses to the July SLOOS pointing to stronger demand for residential mortgage loans, and the steady increase in house prices were seen as evidence of rising demand. In addition, credit conditions remained favorable: Mortgage rates had fallen further, and the SLOOS reported easier terms for loans eligible for purchase by the GSEs. Moreover, several participants noted positive reports on residential construction activity from business contacts in their Districts, with a few suggesting that shortages of lots and skilled labor, rather than low demand, might be contributing to the recent slowing.
Business fixed investment appeared to have declined further during the second quarter, with broad-based weakness in equipment and another steep drop in drilling and mining structures. Participants noted that the recent rise in energy prices had spurred an uptick in drilling activity, suggesting that if energy prices firm over time as expected, the drag on investment from declining energy-sector activity should diminish. In addition, it was pointed out that the upward trend in investment in intellectual property products was a positive in the outlook for investment. Several participants commented on favorable reports from their business contacts on commercial construction. Based on conversations with their contacts, participants discussed a number of factors that may have been contributing to businesses' cautious approach to investment spending, including concern about the likelihood of an extended period of slow economic growth, both in the United States and abroad; narrowing profit margins; and uncertainty about prospects for government policies.
In their discussion of business conditions in their Districts, many participants reported that their contacts anticipated that the U.K. referendum would have little effect on their businesses. Activity in the manufacturing sector continued to be mixed: Several participants indicated that manufacturing in their Districts was still quite weak, while several others reported that their Banks' June surveys showed that manufacturing activity had picked up or stabilized. The available surveys indicated that service-sector activity continued to expand. However, economic activity continued to be depressed in areas affected by the downturn in the energy sector and falling agricultural commodity prices, although several participants noted that the recent firming in crude oil prices had led to a modest increase in drilling activity. Businesses in the energy industry were reported to be highly leveraged, and additional restructurings and bankruptcies were seen as likely. Farm loans continued to increase, and banks had seen some rise in delinquencies on such credits.
The labor market report for June appeared to confirm participants' earlier assessments that the small gain in payroll employment in May likely had substantially understated its underlying pace. The sharp rebound in payroll employment gains put the average monthly increase in jobs over the three months ending in June at about 150,000. Although this pace was noticeably slower than the average rate during 2015 and the first quarter of 2016, many participants viewed it as consistent with continued strengthening in labor market conditions and with a further gradual decline in the unemployment rate. The unemployment rate rose in June after having declined in May, but the labor force participation rate ticked up, the rate of involuntary part-time employment more than reversed its increase in May, and the broader U-6 measure of labor underutilization continued to move down. Some participants noted that recent signs of a moderate step-up in wage increases provided further evidence of improving labor market conditions. Although most participants judged that labor market conditions were at or approaching those consistent with maximum employment, their views on the implications for progress on the Committee's policy objectives varied. Some of them believed that a convergence to a more moderate, sustainable pace of job gains would soon be necessary to prevent an unwanted increase in inflationary pressures. Other participants continued to judge that labor utilization remained below that consistent with the Committee's maximum-employment objective. These participants noted that progress in reducing slack in the labor market had slowed, citing relatively little change, on net, since the beginning of the year in the unemployment rate, the number of persons working part time for economic reasons, the employment-to-population ratio, labor force participation, or rates of job openings and quits.
Available information on inflation suggested that the change in headline PCE prices for the 12 months ending in June continued to run well below the Committee's longer-run objective and that the 12-month change in core PCE prices likely remained near its May level of 1.6 percent. On a 12-month-change basis, core PCE inflation had risen from 1.3 percent a year earlier, but it continued to be held down by the pass-through of earlier declines in energy prices and by soft prices of imports. Core PCE inflation over the first half of 2016 was expected to have been close to an annual rate of 2 percent, but it was noted that some of the increase likely reflected transitory effects that would be in part reversed during the second half of the year. Longer-run inflation expectations, as reported in the Michigan survey, were little changed in June and early July. The reading from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Survey of Consumer Expectations for inflation three years ahead moved up further in June, returning to near its level of a year earlier. Most market-based measures of longer-run inflation compensation remained low.
Participants also discussed recent developments in financial markets and issues related to financial stability. The vote by the United Kingdom to leave the EU led to sharp declines in risk asset prices and a spike in volatility in financial markets early in the intermeeting period. But those price moves were subsequently reversed, likely in response to expectations for policy actions by some major central banks, the resolution of some of the political uncertainty in the United Kingdom, and better-than-expected data on U.S. economic activity. Financial markets and institutions were generally resilient in the aftermath of the vote, apparently reflecting in part advance preparations by key market participants and communications from advanced-economy central banks before and after the vote that they would take the steps necessary to provide liquidity to support the orderly functioning of markets. Overall, U.S. financial conditions eased during the intermeeting period: Major equity indexes rose, longer-term interest rates fell, credit spreads narrowed, and the broad index of the foreign exchange value of the dollar was little changed.
In the discussion of developments related to financial stability, it was noted that while the capital and liquidity positions of U.S. banks remained strong, European banks, particularly Italian banks, were under pressure--as evidenced by the sharp declines in their equity prices--from a weaker economic outlook for that region, thin interest margins, and concerns about the quality of their loan portfolios. In U.S. markets, overall financial vulnerabilities were judged to remain moderate, as nonfinancial debt had continued to increase roughly in line with nominal GDP and valuation pressures were not widespread. However, during the discussion, several participants commented on a few developments, including potential overvaluation in the market for CRE, the elevated level of equity values relative to expected earnings, and the incentives for investors to reach for yield in an environment of continued low interest rates. Regarding CRE, it was noted that the recent SLOOS reported that a significant fraction of banks tightened lending standards in the first and second quarters of the year and that overvaluation did not appear to be widespread across markets. It was also pointed out that investors potentially were becoming more comfortable locking in current yields in an environment in which low interest rates were expected to persist, rather than engaging in the type of speculative behavior that could pose financial stability concerns.
Participants discussed the implications of recent economic and financial developments for the economic outlook and the risks attending the outlook. They indicated that their forecasts for economic growth, the labor market, and inflation had changed little over the intermeeting period. Regarding the near-term outlook, participants generally agreed that the prompt recovery in financial markets following the Brexit vote and the pickup in job gains in June had alleviated two key uncertainties about the outlook that they had faced at the June meeting. Brexit now appeared likely to have little effect on the U.S. economic outlook in the near term. Moreover, the employment report for June, along with other recent information that suggested that real GDP rose at a moderate rate in the second quarter, provided some reassurance that a sharp slowdown in employment and economic activity was not under way. Participants judged that the incoming information, on the whole, had lowered the downside risks to the near-term economic outlook. Most participants anticipated that economic growth would move up to a rate somewhat above its longer-run trend during the second half of 2016 and that the labor market would strengthen further. However, several noted that while the outlook for consumer spending remained positive, continued weakness in business investment and the possibility of slower improvement in the housing sector posed some downside risks to their forecasts.
Although the near-term risks to the outlook associated with Brexit had diminished over the intermeeting period, participants generally agreed that they should continue to closely monitor economic and financial developments abroad. As a consequence of Brexit, economic growth in the United Kingdom and, to a lesser extent, in the euro area would likely be slower than previously anticipated. Moreover, the exit process was expected to entail an extended period of negotiations that, in the view of most participants, had the potential to increase the political and economic uncertainties in that region; several also saw the possibility that complications during the exit process could result in spells of elevated volatility in global financial markets. Some participants noted that the weak capital positions and high levels of nonperforming loans at some European banks could also weigh on economic growth in the region. In addition to the situation in Europe, some participants continued to see a number of other downside risks to the medium-term economic and financial outlook from abroad, including weakness in the global economy more broadly, uncertainty about the outlook for China's foreign exchange policy, and the implications of China's run-up in debt to support its economy. A few others noted uncertainty about the strength of domestic economic activity going forward. However, some other participants indicated that they did not view the uncertainties attending the outlook to be unusually elevated and continued to see the risks to their economic forecasts as balanced.
In discussing the outlook for the labor market, most participants viewed some further strengthening in labor market indicators as consistent with achieving the Committee's maximum-employment objective. With inflation still below the Committee's longer-run objective and likely to continue to respond only slowly to somewhat tighter labor markets, most also saw relatively low risk that a further gradual strengthening of the labor market would generate an unwanted increase in inflationary pressures. Nevertheless, a few participants continued to caution about the risks to the inflation outlook from overshooting the natural rate of unemployment. Some indicated that a step-down in monthly job gains seemed appropriate as labor market conditions approached those consistent with the Committee's maximum-employment objective and that a more moderate pace of hiring could still be consistent with further increases in labor utilization. However, several others were concerned that if labor market slack diminished more slowly than they had previously anticipated, progress on the Committee's maximum-employment and inflation objectives could be delayed.
Regarding the outlook for inflation, incoming information appeared to be broadly in line with most participants' earlier expectations that inflation would gradually rise to 2 percent over the medium term. Most noted that the firming in various indicators of core inflation over the past year, together with signs that the direct and indirect effects of earlier declines in energy prices and prices of non-oil imports had begun to fade, provided support for their forecasts. Several added that recent indications of a pickup in wage increases were evidence of the effect of tightening resource utilization. However, other participants expressed greater uncertainty about the trajectory of inflation. They saw little evidence that inflation was responding much to higher levels of resource utilization and suggested that the natural rate of unemployment, and the responsiveness of inflation to labor market conditions, may be lower than most current estimates. Several viewed the risks to their inflation forecasts as weighted to the downside, particularly in light of the still-low level of measures of longer-run inflation expectations and inflation compensation and the likelihood that disinflationary pressures from abroad would persist.
Against the backdrop of their views of the economic outlook, participants discussed the conditions that could warrant taking another step in removing monetary policy accommodation. With inflation continuing to run below the Committee's 2 percent objective, many judged that it was appropriate to wait for additional information that would allow them to evaluate the underlying momentum in economic activity and the labor market and whether inflation was continuing to rise gradually to 2 percent as expected. Several suggested that the Committee would likely have ample time to react if inflation rose more quickly than they currently anticipated, and they preferred to defer another increase in the federal funds rate until they were more confident that inflation was moving closer to 2 percent on a sustained basis. In addition, although near-term downside risks to the outlook had diminished over the intermeeting period, some participants stressed that the Committee needed to consider the constraints on the conduct of monetary policy associated with proximity to the effective lower bound on short-term interest rates. These participants concluded that the Committee should wait to take another step in removing accommodation until the data on economic activity provided a greater level of confidence that economic growth was strong enough to withstand a possible downward shock to demand. However, some other participants viewed recent economic developments as indicating that labor market conditions were at or close to those consistent with maximum employment and expected that the recent progress in reaching the Committee's inflation objective would continue, even with further steps to gradually remove monetary policy accommodation. Given their economic outlook, they judged that another increase in the federal funds rate was or would soon be warranted, with a couple of them advocating an increase at this meeting. A few participants pointed out that various benchmarks for assessing the appropriate stance of monetary policy supported taking another step in removing policy accommodation. A few also emphasized the risk to the economic expansion that would be associated with allowing labor market conditions to tighten to an extent that could lead to an unwanted buildup of inflation pressures and thus eventually require a rapid increase in the federal funds rate. In addition, several expressed concern that an extended period of low interest rates risked intensifying incentives for investors to reach for yield and could lead to the misallocation of capital and mispricing of risk, with possible adverse consequences for financial stability.