Last night’s Fed minutes represented another round of mind control with both dovish and hawkish statements leaving markets alert but not alarmed about taper timing, exactly where the Fed wants them I suspect, unable to rally or fall too hard:
Both domestic and foreign asset markets were volatile at times during the intermeeting period, reacting to policy communications and data releases. In discussing the increases in U.S. longer-term interest rates that occurred in the wake of the June FOMC meeting and the associated press conference, meeting participants pointed to heightened financial market uncertainty about the path of monetary policy and a shift of market expectations toward less policy accommodation. A few participants suggested that this shift occurred in part because Committee participants’ economic projections, released following the June meeting, generally showed a somewhat more favorable outlook than those of private forecasters, or because the June policy statement and press conference were seen as indicating relatively little concern about inflation readings, which had been low and declining. Moreover, investors may have perceived that Committee communications about the possibility of slowing the pace of asset purchases also implied a higher probability of an earlier firming of the federal funds rate. Subsequent Federal Reserve communications, which emphasized that decisions about the two policy tools were distinct and underscored that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy would remain appropriate for a considerable period after purchases are completed, were seen as having helped clarify the Committee’s policy strategy. A number of participants mentioned that, by the end of the intermeeting period, market expectations of the future course of monetary policy, both with regard to asset purchases and with regard to the path of the federal funds rate, appeared well aligned with their own expectations. Nonetheless, some participants felt that, as a result of recent financial market developments, overall financial market conditions had tightened significantly, importantly reflecting larger term premiums, and they expressed concern that the higher level of longer-term interest rates could be a significant factor holding back spending and economic growth. Several others, however, judged that the rise in rates was likely to exert relatively little restraint, or that the increase in equity prices and easing in bank lending standards would largely offset the effects of the rise in longer-term interest rates. Some participants also stated that financial developments during the intermeeting period might have helped put the financial system on a more sustainable footing, insofar as those developments were associated with an unwinding of unsustainable speculative positions or an increase in term premiums from extraordinarily low levels.
…In looking ahead, meeting participants commented on several considerations pertaining to the course of monetary policy. First, almost all participants confirmed that they were broadly comfortable with the characterization of the contingent outlook for asset purchases that was presented in the June postmeeting press conference and in the July monetary policy testimony. Under that outlook, if economic conditions improved broadly as expected, the Committee would moderate the pace of its securities purchases later this year. And if economic conditions continued to develop broadly as anticipated, the Committee would reduce the pace of purchases in measured steps and conclude the purchase program around the middle of 2014. At that point, if the economy evolved along the lines anticipated, the recovery would have gained further momentum, unemployment would be in the vicinity of 7 percent, and inflation would be moving toward the Committee’s 2 percent objective. While participants viewed the future path of purchases as contingent on economic and financial developments, one participant indicated discomfort with the contingent plan on the grounds that the references to specific dates could be misinterpreted by the public as suggesting that the purchase program would be wound down on a more-or-less preset schedule rather than in a manner dependent on the state of the economy. Generally, however, participants were satisfied that investors had come to understand the data-dependent nature of the Committee’s thinking about asset purchases. A few participants, while comfortable with the plan, stressed the need to avoid putting too much emphasis on the 7 percent value for the unemployment rate, which they saw only as illustrative of conditions that could obtain at the time when the asset purchases are completed.
Second, participants considered whether it would be desirable to include in the Committee’s policy statement additional information regarding the Committee’s contingent outlook for asset purchases. Most participants saw the provision of such information, which would reaffirm the contingent outlook presented following the June meeting, as potentially useful; however, many also saw possible difficulties, such as the challenge of conveying the desired information succinctly and with adequate nuance, and the associated risk of again raising uncertainty about the Committee’s policy intentions. A few participants saw other forms of communication as better suited for this purpose. Several participants favored including such additional information in the policy statement to be released following the current meeting; several others indicated that providing such information would be most useful when the time came for the Committee to begin reducing the pace of its securities purchases, reasoning that earlier inclusion might trigger an unintended tightening of financial conditions.
Finally, the potential for clarifying or strengthening the Committee’s forward guidance for the federal funds rate was discussed. In general, there was support for maintaining the current numerical thresholds in the forward guidance. A few participants expressed concern that a decision to lower the unemployment threshold could potentially lead the public to view the unemployment threshold as a policy variable that could not only be moved down but also up, thereby calling into question the credibility of the thresholds and undermining their effectiveness. Nonetheless, several participants were willing to contemplate lowering the unemployment threshold if additional accommodation were to become necessary or if the Committee wanted to adjust the mix of policy tools used to provide the appropriate level of accommodation. A number of participants also remarked on the possible usefulness of providing additional information on the Committee’s intentions regarding adjustments to the federal funds rate after the 6-1/2 percent unemployment rate threshold was reached, in order to strengthen or clarify the Committee’s forward guidance. One participant suggested that the Committee could announce an additional, lower set of thresholds for inflation and unemployment; another indicated that the Committee could provide guidance stating that it would not raise its target for the federal funds rate if the inflation rate was expected to run below a given level at a specific horizon. The latter enhancement to the forward guidance might be seen as reinforcing the message that the Committee was willing to defend its longer-term inflation goal from below as well as from above.
Committee Policy Action
Committee members viewed the information received over the intermeeting period as suggesting that economic activity expanded at a modest pace during the first half of the year. Labor market conditions showed further improvement in recent months, on balance, but the unemployment rate remained elevated. Household spending and business fixed investment advanced, and the housing sector was strengthening, but mortgage rates had risen somewhat and fiscal policy was restraining economic growth. The Committee expected that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic growth would pick up from its recent pace, resulting in a gradual decline in the unemployment rate toward levels consistent with the Committee’s dual mandate. With economic activity and employment continuing to grow despite tighter fiscal policy, and with global financial conditions less strained overall, members generally continued to see the downside risks to the outlook for the economy and the labor market as having diminished since last fall. Inflation was running below the Committee’s longer-run objective, partly reflecting transitory influences, but longer-run inflation expectations were stable, and the Committee anticipated that inflation would move back toward its 2 percent objective over the medium term. Members recognized, however, that inflation persistently below the Committee’s 2 percent objective could pose risks to economic performance.
In their discussion of monetary policy for the period ahead, members judged that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy was warranted in order to foster a stronger economic recovery and sustained improvement in labor market conditions in a context of price stability. In considering the likely path for the Committee’s asset purchases, members discussed the degree of improvement in the labor market outlook since the purchase program began last fall. The unemployment rate had declined considerably since then, and recent gains in payroll employment had been solid. However, other measures of labor utilization–including the labor force participation rate and the numbers of discouraged workers and those working part time for economic reasons–suggested more modest improvement, and other indicators of labor demand, such as rates of hiring and quits, remained low. While a range of views were expressed regarding the cumulative improvement in the labor market since last fall, almost all Committee members agreed that a change in the purchase program was not yet appropriate. However, in the view of the one member who dissented from the policy statement, the improvement in the labor market was an important reason for calling for a more explicit statement from the Committee that asset purchases would be reduced in the near future. A few members emphasized the importance of being patient and evaluating additional information on the economy before deciding on any changes to the pace of asset purchases. At the same time, a few others pointed to the contingent plan that had been articulated on behalf of the Committee the previous month, and suggested that it might soon be time to slow somewhat the pace of purchases as outlined in that plan. At the conclusion of its discussion, the Committee decided to continue adding policy accommodation by purchasing additional MBS at a pace of $40 billion per month and longer-term Treasury securities at a pace of $45 billion per month and to maintain its existing reinvestment policies. In addition, the Committee reaffirmed its intention to keep the target federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and retained its forward guidance that it anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.
Members also discussed the wording of the policy statement to be issued following the meeting. In addition to updating its description of the state of the economy, the Committee decided to underline its concern about recent shortfalls of inflation from its longer-run goal by including in the statement an indication that it recognizes that inflation persistently below its 2 percent objective could pose risks to economic performance, while also noting that it continues to anticipate that inflation will move back toward its objective over the medium term. The Committee also considered whether to add more information concerning the contingent outlook for asset purchases to the policy statement, but judged that doing so might prompt an unwarranted shift in market expectations regarding asset purchases. The Committee decided to indicate in the statement that it “reaffirmed its view”–rather than simply “expects”–that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends and the economic recovery strengthens.
When the Fed tapers now is really immaterial. the possibility of it is all that matters.
He is also a former gold trader and economic commentator at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, the ABC and Business Spectator. He is the co-author of The Great Crash of 2008 with Ross Garnaut and was the editor of the second Garnaut Climate Change Review.
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