The Minutes of the Fed’s Mid-December Meeting

The Fed on Wednesday released the minutes of the Committee meeting held on December 15-16, 2009. The minutes revealed difference of opinions among members of the committee on whether to expand or contract emergency programs deployed to shore up the economy.

Here are some of the participants’ views on current conditions and the economic outlook:

“In their discussion of the economic situation and outlook, meeting participants agreed that the incoming data and information received from business contacts suggested that economic growth was strengthening in the fourth quarter, that firms were reducing payrolls at a less rapid pace, and that downside risks to the outlook for economic growth had diminished a bit further. Although some of the recent data had been better than anticipated, most participants saw the incoming information as broadly in line with the projections for moderate growth and subdued inflation in 2010 that they had submitted just before the Committee’s November 3-4 meeting; accordingly, their views on the economic outlook had not changed appreciably. Participants expected the economic recovery to continue, but, consistent with experience following previous financial crises, most anticipated that the pickup in output and employment growth would be rather slow relative to past recoveries from deep recessions. A moderate pace of expansion would imply slow improvement in the labor market next year, with unemployment declining only gradually. Participants agreed that underlying inflation currently was subdued and was likely to remain so for some time. Some noted the risk that, over the next couple of years, inflation could edge further below the rates they judged most consistent with the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate for maximum employment and price stability; others saw inflation risks as tilted toward the upside in the medium term.

A number of factors were expected to support near-term expansion in economic activity. Consumer spending appeared to be on a moderately rising trend, reflecting gains in after-tax income and wealth this year. Recent upward revisions to official estimates of the level of household income in recent quarters gave participants somewhat greater confidence that consumer spending would continue to expand. The housing sector showed continuing signs of improvement, though housing starts had leveled out after increasing earlier in the year and activity remained quite low. Businesses seemed to be reducing the pace of inventory reductions. The outlook for growth abroad had improved since earlier in the year, auguring well for U.S. exports. In addition, financial market conditions generally had become more supportive of economic growth. While these developments were positive, participants noted several factors that likely would continue to restrain the expansion in economic activity. Business contacts again emphasized they would be cautious in adding to payrolls and capital spending, even as demand for their products increases. Conditions in the commercial real estate (CRE) sector were still deteriorating. Bank credit had contracted further, and with many banks facing continuing loan losses, tight bank credit could continue to weigh on the spending of some households and businesses. Some participants remained concerned about the economy’s ability to generate a self-sustaining recovery without government support. In particular, they noted the risk that improvements in the housing sector might be undercut next year as the Federal Reserve’s purchases of MBS wind down, the homebuyer tax credits expire, and foreclosures and distress sales continue. Though the near-term outlook remains uncertain, participants generally thought the most likely outcome was that economic growth would gradually strengthen over the next two years as financial conditions improved further, leading to more-substantial increases in resource utilization.

The Committee emphasized that it would continue to evaluate the timing and overall amounts of its purchases of securities in light of the evolving economic outlook and conditions in financial markets. A few members noted that resource slack was expected to diminish only slowly and observed that it might become desirable at some point in the future to provide more policy stimulus by expanding the planned scale of the Committee’s large-scale asset purchases and continuing them beyond the first quarter, especially if the outlook for economic growth were to weaken or if mortgagemarket functioning were to deteriorate.

Fed thoughts on Reverse Repos:

“The staff presented another update on the continuing development of several tools that could be used to support a smooth withdrawal of policy accommodation at the appropriate time; these tools include executing reverse repurchase agreements (RRPs) on a large scale and implementing a term deposit facility (TDF). To further test its RRP capabilities, in early December, the Desk executed a few small RRPs with primary dealers, using both Treasury and agency debt as collateral. These transactions confirmed the operational capability to execute triparty RRPs on a larger scale if so directed by the Committee. The Desk was continuing to develop the capacity to conduct RRPs using agency MBS collateral and anticipated that this work would be completed by the spring. In addition, the Desk reported that it was exploring the operational issues associated with expanding potential counterparties for RRPs beyond the primary dealers. Staff also reported significant progress in developing and implementing a TDF. The staff noted that it planned to ask the Board to approve a Federal Register notice requesting public comments on a TDF and summarized the contents of the draft notice.”

View on real estate:

“CRE activity continued to fall markedly in most parts of the country as a result of deteriorating fundamentals, including declining occupancy and rental rates, and very tight credit conditions. Prospects for nonresidential construction remained weak.

In the residential real estate sector, home sales and construction had risen relative to the very low levels reported in the spring; moreover, house prices appeared to be stabilizing and in some areas had reportedly moved higher. Generally, the outlook was for gains in housing activity to continue. However, some participants still viewed the improved outlook as quite tentative and again pointed to potential sources of softness, including the termination next year of the temporary tax credits for homebuyers and the downward pressure that further increases in foreclosures could put on house prices. Moreover, mortgage markets could come under pressure as the Federal Reserve’s agency MBS purchases wind down.”

[emphasis added]

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