Inquiring minds are reading Minutes of the December 17-18 FOMC Meeting to see what the Fed is thinking. Here are a few key paragraphs:

Most participants judged the marginal costs of asset purchases as unlikely to be sufficient, relative to their marginal benefits, to justify ending the purchases now or relatively soon; a few participants identified some possible costs as being more substantial, indicating that the costs could justify ending purchases now or relatively soon even if the Committee’s macroeconomic goals for the purchase program had not yet been achieved. Participants were most concerned about the marginal cost of additional asset purchases arising from risks to financial stability, pointing out that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy could provide an incentive for excessive risk-taking in the financial sector. It was noted that the risks to financial stability could be somewhat larger in the case of asset purchases than in the case of interest rate policy because purchases work in part by affecting term premiums and policymakers have less experience with term premium effects than with more conventional interest rate policy. Participants also expressed some concern that additional asset purchases increase the likelihood that the Federal Reserve might at some point suffer capital losses.

A majority of participants judged that the marginal efficacy of purchases was likely declining as purchases continue, although some noted the difficulty inherent in making such an assessment. A couple of participants thought that the marginal efficacy of the program was not declining, as evidenced by the substantial effects in financial markets in recent months of news about the likely path of purchases.

Investors appeared to read the economic data releases over the intermeeting period as better than had been expected and therefore as raising the odds that the FOMC might decide to reduce the pace of asset purchases at its December meeting. Survey evidence suggested that market participants now saw roughly similar probabilities of the first reduction in the pace of asset purchases occurring at the December, January, or March meeting. Market expectations regarding the timing of liftoff of the federal funds rate seemed to be little changed over the period. In part, a variety of Federal Reserve communications were seen as strengthening the Committee’s forward guidance for the federal funds rate and contributing to the stability of expectations for the near-term path of the federal funds rate in the face of an improved economic outlook.

Staff Economic Outlook

In the economic projection prepared by the staff for the December FOMC meeting, the forecast for growth in real gross domestic product (GDP) in the second half of this year was revised up a little from the one prepared for the previous meeting, as the recent information on private domestic final demand–particularly consumer spending–was somewhat better, on balance, than the staff had anticipated. The staff’s medium-term forecast for real GDP growth was also revised up slightly, reflecting a small reduction in fiscal restraint from the recent federal budget agreement, which the staff assumed would be enacted; a lower anticipated trajectory for longer-term interest rates; and higher paths for equity values and home prices. Those factors, in total, more than offset a higher path for the foreign exchange value of the dollar. The staff continued to project that real GDP would expand more quickly over the next few years than it has this year and would rise significantly faster than the growth rate of potential output. This acceleration in economic activity was expected to be supported by an easing in the effects of fiscal policy restraint on economic growth, increases in consumer and business sentiment, continued improvements in credit availability and financial conditions, a further easing of the economic stresses in Europe, and still-accommodative monetary policy. The expansion in economic activity was anticipated to slowly reduce resource slack over the projection period, and the unemployment rate was expected to decline gradually to the staff’s estimate of its longer-run natural rate.

In their discussion of the economic situation and the outlook, meeting participants viewed the information received over the intermeeting period as suggesting that the economy was expanding at a moderate pace. They generally indicated that the broad contours of their outlook for real activity, the labor market, and inflation had not changed materially since their October meeting, but most expressed greater confidence in the outlook and saw the risks associated with their forecasts of real GDP growth and the unemployment rate as more nearly balanced than earlier in the year. Almost all participants continued to project that the rate of growth of economic activity would strengthen in coming years, and all anticipated that the unemployment rate would gradually decline toward levels consistent with their current assessments of its longer-run normal value. The projected improvement in economic activity was expected to be supported by highly accommodative monetary policy, diminished fiscal policy restraint, and a pickup in global economic growth, as well as a further easing of credit conditions and continued improvements in household balance sheets.

Inflation remained below the Committee’s longer-run objective over the intermeeting period. Nevertheless, participants still anticipated that with longer-run inflation expectations stable and economic activity picking up, inflation would move back toward its objective over the medium run. But they noted that inflation persistently below the Committee’s objective would pose risks to economic performance and so saw a need to monitor inflation developments carefully.

 Fiscal policy continued to restrain economic growth. However, participants generally judged that the extent of the restraint may have begun to diminish as the effects of the payroll tax increases earlier in the year seem to have waned, and the drag on real activity from restrictive fiscal policies was expected to decline further going forward. Moreover, a number of participants observed that the prospect that the Congress would shortly reach an accord on the budget seemed to be reducing uncertainty and lowering the risks that might be associated with a disruptive political impasse.

Committee participants generally viewed the increases in nonfarm payroll employment of more than 200,000 per month in October and November and the decline in the unemployment rate to 7 percent as encouraging signs of ongoing improvement in labor market conditions. 

Inflation continued to run noticeably below the Committee’s longer-run objective of 2 percent, but participants anticipated that it would move back toward 2 percent over time as the economic recovery strengthened and longer-run inflation expectations remained steady.

Nonetheless, many participants expressed concern about the deceleration in consumer prices over the past year, and a couple pointed out that a number of other advanced economies were also experiencing very low inflation. Among the costs of very low or declining inflation that were cited were its effects in raising real interest rates and debt burdens. A few participants raised the possibility that recent declines in inflation might suggest that the economic recovery was not as strong as some thought.

While deciding to modestly reduce its pace of purchases, the Committee emphasized that its holdings of longer-term securities were sizable and would still be increasing, which would promote a stronger economic recovery by maintaining downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, supporting mortgage markets, and helping to make broader financial conditions more accommodative. The Committee also reiterated that it will continue its asset purchases, and employ its other policy tools as appropriate, until the outlook for the labor market has improved substantially in a context of price stability. In the view of one member, a reduction in the pace of purchases was premature and, before taking such a step, the Committee should wait for more convincing evidence that economic growth was rising faster than its potential and that inflation would return to the Committee’s 2 percent objective.

Fed’s Optimism

In aggregate, the Fed seems to believe the economy has turned the corner.

I take the other side of the coin citing rising mortgage rates, no pent-up demand for autos, declining lending standards, and lack of genuine pricing mechanisms as the Fed has grossly distorted all price signals with its QE programs.

Falling inflation is actually a good thing, but no one on the Fed sees things that way. Nor do any of the Fed governors see the enormous bubbles in stocks and corporate bonds they have created.

Excessive Risk Taking

A few participants worried about the “incentive for excessive risk-taking in the financial sector”

I suggest it’s far too late for that worry. The incentive for excessive risk-taking has been operative for years. It is reflected in economic bubbles of all sorts. One only has to open one’s eyes to see them.

Fed forecasts are exceptionally wrong at economic turns, as past minutes from 2000 and 2007 show.

And here we are again, at yet another 7-year interval, with the Fed unable or unwilling to see the bubbles they created, just as they failed to see the dotcom bubble in 2000 and the housing bubble in 2007.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock