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posted on 24 May 2017

03 May 2017 FOMC Meeting Minutes: When Will The Ducks Line Up For A Fed Rate Increase?

Fed-sealSMALL-- this post authored by Steven Hansen

The 03 May 2017 meeting statement presented the actions taken. This post covers the economic discussion during this FOMC meeting between the members (minutes were released today). There was considerable discussion on when to raise the federal funds rate again:

... Several participants, however, pointed to conditions under which the Committee might need to consider a somewhat more rapid removal of monetary accommodation--for instance, if the unemployment rate fell appreciably further than currently projected, if wages increased more rapidly than expected, or if highly stimulative fiscal policy changes were to be enacted. In contrast, a couple of others judged that the Committee could withdraw monetary accommodation even more gradually than reflected in the medians of forecasts in the March Summary of Economic Projections, noting that slack might remain in the labor market or that inflation was not very sensitive to declines in the unemployment rate below its estimated longer-run normal level. .....

Analyst Opinion of these minutes

Wow, Everytime I read the FOMC minutes, I wonder if the more educated one is - the more difficult problem solving becomes. I guess the minutes this time shows the ducks did not line up for a rate increase, and the committee members seem to have varying ideas what would be a trigger for a rate increase. If one believes these minutes, if the economy continues on its current path there will be a rate increase unless inflation does not strengthen. Low fed rate is deflationary - Catch 22.

The interesting points are highlighted in bold below. Econintersect publishes below the views of the FOMC members, and ignores the reports given to the members. We are looking for a glimpse of insight into the minds of the FOMC members.

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 continued to strengthen even as growth in economic activity slowed in the first quarter. Job gains remained solid, on average, in recent months, and the unemployment rate declined. Household spending rose only modestly, but the fundamentals underpinning the continued growth of consumption remained solid. Business fixed investment firmed in the first quarter after increasing only slowly over the previous two years. Inflation measured on a 12-month basis recently had been running close to the Committee's 2 percent longer-run objective; consumer prices, both including and excluding prices of energy and food items, declined in March, and core inflation continued to run somewhat below 2 percent. Market-based measures of inflation compensation remained low; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations were little changed on balance.

Although the incoming data showed that aggregate spending in the first quarter had been weaker than participants had expected, they viewed the slowing as likely to be transitory. They continued to expect that, with further gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity would expand at a moderate pace, labor market conditions would strengthen somewhat further, and inflation would stabilize around 2 percent over the medium term.

Participants generally indicated that their assessments of the medium-term economic outlook had changed little since the March meeting, and they discussed various reasons why the softness in consumer spending in the first quarter was likely to be transitory. Some participants judged that the low reading on GDP growth also could partly reflect residual seasonality and so would likely be followed by stronger GDP growth in subsequent quarters, repeating a pattern evidenced in recent years. A few emphasized the uncertainty with regard to the reasons for the unexpected weakness in consumer spending but considered it too early to judge the implications for the outlook. Many pointed to the recent firming of the housing market and business fixed investment as welcome developments.

Overall, participants continued to see the near-term risks to the economic outlook as roughly balanced. Many participants saw the risks stemming from global economic and financial developments as having receded further over the intermeeting period. They pointed to the encouraging tone of recent data on economic growth abroad, which suggested some upside risks to foreign economic activity. However, several noted that downside risks to the global outlook remained, either because of geopolitical developments and foreign political factors or because monetary policy normalization in the United States could lead to financial strains in EMEs. Many participants continued to view the possibility of expansionary fiscal policy changes in the United States as posing upside risks to their forecasts for U.S. economic growth, although they also noted that prospects for enactment of a more expansionary fiscal program, as well as its size, composition, and timing, remained highly uncertain. Regarding the outlook for inflation, a couple of participants expressed concern that a substantial undershooting of the longer-run normal rate of unemployment could pose an appreciable upside risk to inflation. However, several others continued to see downside risks to the inflation outlook, particularly given the low readings on inflation over the intermeeting period and the still-low measures of inflation compensation and inflation expectations. Participants agreed that the Committee should continue to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.

While recent data suggested a significant slowdown of growth in consumption spending early in the year, participants expected to see a rebound in consumer spending in coming months in light of the solid fundamentals underpinning household spending, including ongoing job gains, rising household income and wealth, improved household balance sheets, and buoyant consumer sentiment. It was noted that much of the recent slowing likely reflected transitory factors, such as low consumer spending for energy services induced by an unusually mild winter and a decline in motor vehicle sales from an unsustainably high fourth-quarter pace. Nevertheless, contacts expected that demand for motor vehicles would be well maintained. District reports on the service sector were generally positive, although one District's contacts in the tourism industry reported a falloff in international visitors. One participant noted that retail contacts reported upbeat projections for online sales and associated package delivery services, in part reflecting structural shifts in the retail industry.

Several participants discussed the pickup in residential investment in the first quarter. Starts and permits for single-family housing continued to post moderate increases, while sales of new homes rose strongly from their level in the fourth quarter of 2016. Business contacts in some Districts reported that residential construction activity had not kept pace with demand, resulting in shortages in housing supply and upward pressure on prices.

Business fixed investment increased at a solid pace in the first quarter, led by a rebound in drilling for oil and natural gas. Several participants noted that rising orders for capital goods suggested further gains in business equipment investment over coming quarters. Business contacts reported increases in activity in the manufacturing and energy sectors. Contacts in many Districts were said to be generally optimistic about business prospects. Several participants noted that surveys of business conditions in their Districts continued to indicate expanding activity. A few participants commented that firms engaged in international trade were benefiting from improvements in global demand conditions. Several participants reported that firms in their Districts planned to increase capital expenditures, although in another District, uncertainty about changes in trade and regulatory policies was said to be weighing on capital spending. Conditions in the agricultural sector remained weak, partly as a result of low commodity prices.

Labor market conditions strengthened further in recent months. At 4.5 percent, the unemployment rate had reached or fallen below levels that participants judged likely to be normal over the longer run. Increases in nonfarm payroll employment averaged almost 180,000 per month during the first quarter, a pace that, if maintained, would be expected to result in further increases in labor utilization over time. Labor market conditions in many Districts were reported to have continued to improve. Contacts in several Districts reported a pickup in wage increases, shortages of workers in selected occupations, or pressures to train workers for hard-to-fill jobs. Even so, several other participants suggested some margins may remain along which labor market utilization could increase further without giving rise to inflationary pressures. In that regard, they noted that the recent rise in the labor force participation rate in the face of a downward trend from demographic factors was a positive development. However, a couple of participants pointed out that uncertainty about both the longer-run normal rate of unemployment and labor force trends made it difficult to assess the scope for additional sustainable increases in labor utilization. Generally, participants continued to expect that if economic growth stayed moderate, as they projected, the unemployment rate would remain, for the next few years, below their estimates of its longer-run normal level. A few participants continued to anticipate a substantial undershooting of the longer-run normal level of the unemployment rate.

Readings on headline and core PCE price inflation in March had come in lower than expected. On a 12‑month basis, headline PCE price inflation had edged above the Committee's 2 percent objective in February, but this measure dropped back to 1.8 percent in March, in part reflecting the effects of lower energy prices on the headline index. Core PCE price inflation, which historically has been a good predictor of future headline inflation, moved down to 1.6 percent over the 12 months ending in March. However, it was noted that some of this slowing reflected idiosyncratic factors such as a large drop in the measure of quality-adjusted prices for wireless telephone services. Several participants emphasized that inflation measured on a 12-month basis had been running very close to the Committee's 2 percent target. Overall, most participants viewed the recent softer inflation data as primarily reflecting transitory factors, but a few expressed concern that progress toward the Committee's objective may have slowed. Market-based measures of longer-term inflation compensation remained low, with five-year, five-year-forward CPI inflation compensation a bit below 2 percent--unchanged from the time of the March FOMC meeting but somewhat above levels registered last year. In addition, the median measure of inflation expectations over the next 5 to 10 years in the Michigan survey edged down from 2.5 percent in February to 2.4 percent in March and April. The three-year-ahead measure of inflation expectations from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Survey of Consumer Expectations decreased from 3.0 percent to 2.7 percent in March and rose to 2.9 percent in April.

In light of these developments, participants generally continued to expect that inflation would stabilize around the Committee's 2 percent objective over the medium run as the effects of transitory factors waned and conditions in the labor market and the overall economy improved further. Participants noted that import prices had begun to increase, supporting their expectation that inflation would gradually rise. A few participants, however, expressed uncertainty about the reasons for the recent unexpected weakness in inflation measures and about its implications for the inflation outlook.

In their discussion of recent developments in financial markets, some participants commented on changes in financial conditions in the wake of the Committee's decision to increase the target range for the federal funds rate in March. They noted variously that the decline in longer-term interest rates and the modest depreciation of the dollar over the intermeeting period would provide some stimulus to aggregate demand, that the Committee's recent policy actions had not resulted in a tightening of financial conditions, or that some of the decline in longer-term yields reflected investors' perceptions of diminished odds of significant fiscal stimulus and an increase in some geopolitical and foreign political risks.

With regard to financial stability, several participants emphasized that higher requirements for capital and liquidity in the banking system and other prudential standards had contributed to increased resilience in the financial system since the financial crisis. However, they expressed concerns that a possible easing of regulatory standards could increase risks to financial stability. In addition, it was noted that real estate values were elevated in some sectors of the CRE market, that a sharp decline in such valuations could pose risks to financial stability, and that potential reforms in the housing finance sector could have implications for such valuations.

In their consideration of monetary policy, participants judged that it was appropriate to leave the target range for the federal funds rate unchanged at this meeting. Although the data on aggregate spending and inflation received over the intermeeting period were, on balance, weaker than participants expected, they generally saw the outlook for the economy and inflation as little changed and judged that a continued gradual removal of monetary policy accommodation remained appropriate. A couple of participants indicated that increasing the target range for the federal funds rate at the current meeting would be warranted by their economic outlook, but they also noted that maintaining the current stance of policy for now would be consistent with the Committee's gradual approach or that the Committee's recent communications had not pointed to an increase at this meeting. Most participants judged that if economic information came in about in line with their expectations, it would soon be appropriate for the Committee to take another step in removing some policy accommodation. A number of participants pointed out that clarification of prospective fiscal and other policy changes would remove one source of uncertainty for the economic outlook. Participants generally agreed that the current stance of monetary policy remained accommodative, supporting some additional strengthening in labor market conditions and a sustained return to 2 percent inflation.

Participants generally reiterated their support for a continued gradual approach to raising the federal funds rate. Some participants noted that core PCE price inflation had been running below the Committee's objective for overall inflation for the past eight years and that it was important to return inflation to 2 percent, or that the public's longer-term inflation expectations may have fallen somewhat, and that a gradual approach to tightening could help return expectations and inflation to 2 percent. One participant cited results of a District survey of businesses indicating that more than one-third of respondents saw the Federal Reserve as more likely to accept inflation below its 2 percent objective than above; that participant interpreted the survey results as suggesting that the Committee's communications about the symmetry of its inflation objective had not completely taken hold, a concern also mentioned by a couple of other participants. Another participant observed that a gradual approach was appropriate because the neutral rate of interest had declined and considerable uncertainty prevailed about its longer-run level. Several participants, however, pointed to conditions under which the Committee might need to consider a somewhat more rapid removal of monetary accommodation--for instance, if the unemployment rate fell appreciably further than currently projected, if wages increased more rapidly than expected, or if highly stimulative fiscal policy changes were to be enacted. In contrast, a couple of others judged that the Committee could withdraw monetary accommodation even more gradually than reflected in the medians of forecasts in the March Summary of Economic Projections, noting that slack might remain in the labor market or that inflation was not very sensitive to declines in the unemployment rate below its estimated longer-run normal level.

Steven Hansen

Source: Federal Reserve

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