In broad terms, the FOMC meeting concluded as I had expected. To the extent there were any surprises, they were on the hawkish side. Or, I would say, hawkish mostly if you believed the events of the last few weeks justified a radical revision of the Fed’s anticipated policy path. I didn’t, but was too busy those same past few weeks to scream into the wind.
As I anticipated, the Fed dismissed the decline in market-based inflation expectations. They clearly believe financial markets over-reacted to the decline in oil prices, and that that decline would ultimately prove to be a one-time price shock rather than the beginning of a sustained disinflationary process.
This is why we watch core-inflation.
And note that the Fed sent a pretty big signal along the way. In contrast to conventional wisdom, they do not hold market-based measures of inflation expectations as the Holy Grail. Especially with unemployment below 6%, pay more attention to survey-based measures. And recognize they will discount even those if they feel they are unduly affected by energy prices in either direction.
Somewhat more hawkish than I anticipated, they did not explicitly hold out the hope of future asset purchases. The statement shifts directly to the issue of rate hikes. On that point, they did as I had expected, emphasize the data-dependent nature of future policy:
However, if incoming information indicates faster progress toward the Committee’s employment and inflation objectives than the Committee now expects, then increases in the target range for the federal funds rate are likely to occur sooner than currently anticipated. Conversely, if progress proves slower than expected, then increases in the target range are likely to occur later than currently anticipated.
In my opinion, this suggests that they want to retain the baseline expectation of a mid-2015 rate hike with the option for an earlier hike. I don’t think they see recent data or market action as by itself justifying the shift to the latter part of 2015. If anything, remember that recent data is pointing to accelerating growth and a rapid decline in unemployment.
And that rapid decline in unemployment is important, as I have trouble imagining a scenario in which the Fed is content to watch unemployment fall below 5.5% without at least beginning the rate hike cycle. Remember that they think that even as they increase rates, they believe that policy will continue to be accommodative. In other words, they do not fear raising rates as necessarily a tightening of policy. They will view it as a necessary adjustment in financial accommodation in response to a decline in labor market slack. Hence the line:
The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.
I anticipated at least one dissent. In all honesty, this would have been a more impressive call if I had also indicated the direction of the dissent. I expected a hawk to reject the retention of the considerable time language. No such luck – quite the opposite, with noted-dove Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota protesting both the considerable time language (wanting a more firm commitment to ZIRP) and the decision to end QE. The hawks, in contrast, were generally comfortable with the direction of the discussion. Expect Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher to say as much soon.
The acceptance of the hawks with the general tone of the meeting is also important. Clearly hawkish in contrast with the shift in market expectations. Time will tell.
Bottom Line: Despite the market turbulence of recent weeks, the general outlook of monetary policymakers remain generally unchanged. In general, they continue to see the direction of activity pointing to a mid-year rate hike. The actual date is of course data dependent, but they have not seen sufficient data in either direction to change that baseline outlook.