Participants' Views on Current Conditions and the Economic Outlook
In their discussion of the economic situation and the outlook, meeting participants agreed that information received over the intermeeting period indicated that the labor market had continued to strengthen and that growth of economic activity had picked up from the modest pace seen in the first half of the year. Job gains had been solid in recent months, although the unemployment rate was little changed. Household spending had been rising moderately, but business fixed investment had remained soft. Inflation had increased somewhat since earlier this year but remained 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 had moved up but remained low; most survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations had changed little, on balance, in recent months. Domestic and global asset markets remained relatively calm over the intermeeting period, and U.S. financial conditions continued to be broadly accommodative.
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 conditions would strengthen somewhat further. Inflation was expected to rise to 2 percent over the medium term, as the transitory effects of past declines in energy and import prices continued to dissipate and the labor market strengthened further. A substantial majority viewed the near-term risks to the economic outlook as roughly balanced, although a few participants judged that significant downside risks remained, citing various factors including the low value of the neutral federal funds rate and its proximity to the effective lower bound, the possibility of weaker-than-expected growth in foreign economies, the continued uncertainty associated with the United Kingdom's exit from the EU, or financial fragilities in some countries. Participants agreed that the Committee should continue to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.
Participants noted that although real GDP growth in the third quarter was appreciably above the slow pace of the first half, it had been boosted in part by transitory factors, including a surge in agricultural exports and a bounceback in inventory investment. Excluding these factors, underlying economic growth had been relatively modest: Growth of consumer spending had slowed from its brisk pace earlier in the year, residential investment had fallen again, and business fixed investment had remained soft. Retailers in a few Districts reported weak to moderate activity, although some contacts thought that holiday sales were likely to peak late in the season. Real economic activity was expected to advance at a moderate pace in coming quarters, primarily reflecting solid growth in consumer spending, consistent with ongoing employment gains, increases in household wealth, and low interest rates.
Participants continued to expect economic activity in the coming quarters to be supported by a pickup in business investment. Recent increases in oil and gas drilling activity in response to higher energy prices were seen as a positive development for the investment outlook; however, a few participants reported that uncertainty about prospects for government policy, shorter investment time horizons for businesses, or the potential for advances in technology to disrupt existing business models were likely weighing on capital spending plans. A few participants noted weakness in nonresidential construction. District reports on residential construction activity were mixed. One participant reported generally strong conditions in the District's housing markets but also cited various factors that were restraining residential construction in some locales, including constraints on builder financing, limitations on the supply of buildable lots, and shortages of skilled labor.
In their discussion of business activity in their Districts, participants provided mixed reports on manufacturing, with a few areas that had been adversely affected by the downturn in energy prices reporting a modest pickup in output. In the agricultural sector, low crop prices were said to continue to weigh on farm income and farm spending.
Participants noted that economic growth in many foreign economies remained subdued, and that inflation rates abroad generally were still quite low. Some participants observed that important international downside risks remained, including constraints on monetary policies in the low interest rate environments of some countries; investors' concerns about developments potentially affecting profitability in the European banking sector; the possible consequences of upcoming negotiations and eventual terms of the United Kingdom's exit from the EU; potential deleterious effects from rapid credit growth in China; and the potential for further dollar appreciation, which could restrain U.S. inflation for a considerable time.
Participants generally agreed that labor market conditions had continued to improve over the intermeeting period. Reports from some Districts pointed to a tightening in labor markets, evidenced by shortages of qualified workers in some occupations, increases in overtime hours, or a pickup in wage inflation. In several of these Districts, business contacts had undertaken workforce development and worker training to address a shortage of labor with the necessary skills.
Many participants commented on the rise in the labor force participation rate since late 2015. A few of them noted that the increase had largely reflected a diminution in the flow of individuals leaving the workforce rather than an increase of new entrants into the labor force and had been more prevalent among workers with relatively less education. Participants expressed uncertainty about how long the participation rate could be expected to continue rising, particularly in light of the downward structural trend in this series. On the one hand, the participation rate for prime-age males remained significantly below its level before the financial crisis, suggesting that it could rise further over time. In addition, there was some uncertainty around estimates of the longer-run trend rate of labor force participation and it could be higher than previously thought, reflecting, for example, a shift toward later retirement. On the other hand, from a business cycle perspective, the increase in the participation rate in recent months was consistent with a tightening labor market and an economy nearing full employment; furthermore, it was not clear that output growth above the economy's potential growth rate would succeed in drawing new entrants permanently into the labor force. Overall, while some participants expressed the view that the economy was close to or at full employment, several others judged that appreciable slack could remain in the labor market. Some participants characterized wage pressures as only moderate, although one noted that wage growth was similar to its pace at the peak of the previous economic expansion.
Readings on headline and core PCE price inflation had come in somewhat higher than expected in recent months. Participants generally regarded this as a positive development, consistent with headline inflation rising over the medium term to the Committee's objective of 2 percent. A few participants observed that it was difficult to judge how much of the uptick in core PCE price inflation reflected transitory factors, while a couple of others saw the incoming data as suggesting that inflation could move up to the Committee's objective more rapidly than previously expected. Participants discussed possible policy implications of the risks surrounding the outlook for inflation, including the possibility that achieving the Committee's inflation objective sooner than previously anticipated could cause a revision in market expectations of the path for policy rates and a sharp rise in longer-term interest rates, or the possibility that a further appreciation of the dollar stemming from developments abroad could renew disinflationary pressures and postpone the need for policy firming. Some participants regarded the uptick in market-based measures of inflation compensation over the intermeeting period as a welcome suggestion of further progress toward the Committee's inflation goal. However, several cautioned that these measures remained low or that the measures still appeared to embed a significant weight on undesirably low inflation outcomes. The median expectation for inflation over the next 5 to 10 years from the Michigan survey edged down in October to a new historical low, although it was noted that this drop could be explained by a reduction in the number of respondents who had previously expected relatively high inflation outcomes. Overall, participants judged that survey-based measures of inflation expectations had been fairly stable in recent months.
Participants discussed a range of issues related to recent developments in financial markets and financial stability. MMF reforms that became effective in mid-October had resulted in a substantial shift of assets out of prime funds and into government-only funds. It was observed that these reforms had contributed to a sizable reduction of risk in the shadow banking system. Participants also discussed some causes of the low yields on longer-term Treasury securities and their embedded term premiums, which were below historical average levels. Among the factors cited were a persistent decline in the neutral federal funds rate, and depressed term premiums likely owing to the elevated size of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet as well as the reduced likelihood of high inflation relative to several decades ago. Some of these factors could endure for some time.
In connection with the participants' discussion of the long-run monetary policy implementation framework, many participants noted that the Committee's broader monetary policy strategy needed both to be considered in conjunction with the design of such a framework and to receive careful further consideration in its own right. In particular, accumulating evidence of slow trend productivity and output growth and associated persistently low levels of neutral interest rates, both in the United States and abroad, had potential implications for the most effective policy implementation framework for the Federal Reserve in coming years as well as the monetary policy strategy that would best promote the Committee's macroeconomic objectives. Among other factors that needed to be taken into account, it was observed that neutral real short-term interest rates could decline further if central bank balance sheets contracted or the positive effects of quantitative easing on economic activity waned over time. Participants agreed that issues associated with monetary policy implementation should be discussed within the context of the current and potential future economic and financial environment and the Committee's strategy for monetary policy.
Against the backdrop of their views of the economic outlook, participants discussed whether the available information warranted taking another step to reduce policy accommodation at this meeting. Based on the relatively limited information received since the September FOMC meeting, participants generally agreed that the case for increasing the target range for the federal funds rate had continued to strengthen. Participants saw recent information as indicating that labor market conditions had improved further and considered the firming in inflation and inflation compensation to be positive developments, consistent with continued progress toward the Committee's 2 percent inflation objective. However, a number of participants expressed the view that some modest slack remained in the labor market or noted that readings on inflation compensation and inflation expectations remained low. Moreover, some participants suggested that current conditions did not point to an immediate need to tighten policy or that some further evidence of continued progress toward the Committee's objectives would provide greater support for policy firming.
Most participants expressed a view that it could well become appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate relatively soon, so long as incoming data provided some further evidence of continued progress toward the Committee's objectives. Some participants noted that recent Committee communications were consistent with an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate in the near term or argued that to preserve credibility, such an increase should occur at the next meeting. A few participants advocated an increase at this meeting; they viewed recent economic developments as indicating that labor market conditions were at or close to those consistent with maximum employment and expected that recent progress toward the Committee's inflation objective would continue, even with further gradual steps to remove monetary policy accommodation. In addition, many judged that risks to economic and financial stability could increase over time if the labor market overheated appreciably, or expressed concern that an extended period of low interest rates risked intensifying incentives for investors to reach for yield, potentially leading to a mispricing of risk and misallocation of capital. In contrast, some others judged that allowing the unemployment rate to fall below its longer-run normal level for a time could result in favorable supply-side effects or help hasten the return of inflation to the Committee's 2 percent objective; noted that proximity of the federal funds rate to the effective lower bound places potential constraints on monetary policy; or stressed that global developments could pose risks to U.S. economic activity. More generally, it was emphasized that decisions regarding near-term adjustments of the stance of monetary policy would appropriately remain dependent on the outlook as informed by incoming data, and participants expected that economic conditions would evolve in a manner that would warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate.