The central message of the minutes was that financial market participants were too complacent in their expectations that the Fed would stand pat in June. The Fed clearly made no such decision in April. Instead, meeting participants hotly debated the likelihood that a rate hike would be appropriate in June:
Participants agreed that their ongoing assessments of the data and other incoming information, as well as the implications for the outlook, would determine the timing and pace of future adjustments to the stance of monetary policy. Most participants judged that if incoming data were consistent with economic growth picking up in the second quarter, labor market conditions continuing to strengthen, and inflation making progress toward the Committee's 2 percent objective, then it likely would be appropriate for the Committee to increase the target range for the federal funds rate in June.
Most participants, but not necessarily most voting members, thought a June hike would be appropriate if the economy firms as anticipated. Still, it was not clear to participants that the economy would evolve as expected:
Participants expressed a range of views about the likelihood that incoming information would make it appropriate to adjust the stance of policy at the time of the next meeting. Several participants were concerned that the incoming information might not provide sufficiently clear signals to determine by mid-June whether an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate would be warranted.
This has been essentially my position - that the Fed would not have sufficient data on Q2 at the time of the June meeting to justify a rate hike. Other were more optimistic:
Some participants expressed more confidence that incoming data would prove broadly consistent with economic conditions that would make an increase in the target range in June appropriate.
Note that "several" is greater than "some." Those same "some" were also likely those that expressed this concern:
Some participants were concerned that market participants may not have properly assessed the likelihood of an increase in the target range at the June meeting, and they emphasized the importance of communicating clearly over the intermeeting period how the Committee intends to respond to economic and financial developments.
This should have come as no surprise. Policymakers have repeatedly said as much in recent weeks. Too many participants in April felt June was a real possibility if the data cooperated - and it largely has cooperated - to so easily dismiss the possibility of a June hike.
Committee members were a bit more circumspect with respect to action in June:
Regarding the possibility of adjustments in the stance of policy at the next meeting, members generally judged it appropriate to leave their policy options open and maintain the flexibility to make this decision based on how the incoming data and developments shaped their outlook for the labor market and inflation as well as their evolving assessments of the balance of risks around that outlook. It was noted that communications could help the public understand how the Committee might respond to incoming data and developments over the upcoming intermeeting period. Some members expressed concern that the likelihood implied by market pricing that the Committee would increase the target range for the federal funds rate at the June meeting might be unduly low.
But it is clearly under consideration.
My initial reaction to the minutes was to call the June meeting a toss-up. Via Sam Fleming at the FT:
Hazards are still lurking overseas, and the minutes made it clear they are weighing on the inflation prospects in the minds of a number of policymakers. Tim Duy, a close Fed watcher who is a professor at the University of Oregon, still puts the odds of a move in June at just 50-50.
On further thought, I should have said toward 50-50. I don't like saying 50-50, because that just means you can't make a decision. And re-reading the minutes, I think the odds given the current data are less than 50% but more than 30%. Ultimately, the decision will depend on the willingness of the committee to move with only a partial view of Q2. I think that ultimately the partial view will not be sufficient.
Instead, I see a strong possibility that sufficiently good data makes a July hike probable. I had been thinking they would pass on July due to the lack of press conference, favoring September instead. But a strong signal about July might represent the compromise position between those members ready to hike and those that want a more complete picture of Q2 before acting. The press conference could then be used to clear the way for July. And it would have the added bonus of ending the idea that the Fed can only hike rates at a meeting with a press conference.
One final note. Consider this paragraph:
Labor market conditions strengthened further in recent months. Increases in nonfarm payroll employment averaged almost 210,000 per month over the first three months of 2016. Although the unemployment rate changed little over that period, the labor force participation rate moved up and the pool of potential workers, which includes the unemployed as well as those who would like a job but are not actively looking, continued to shrink. Many participants judged that labor market conditions had reached or were quite close to those consistent with their interpretation of the Committee's objective of maximum employment. Several of them reported that businesses in their Districts had seen a pickup in wages, shortages of workers in selected occupations, or pressures to retain or train workers for hard-to-fill jobs. Many other participants continued to see scope for reducing labor market slack as labor demand continued to expand. In that regard, a number of participants indicated that the recent rise in the participation rate was a positive development, suggesting that a tighter labor market could potentially draw more individuals back into the workforce on a sustained basis without adding to inflationary pressures and thus increase the productive capacity of the economy. It was also noted that businesses might satisfy increases in labor demand in part by converting involuntary part-time jobs to full-time positions.
There are two clear views here: One group feels the economy is near full employment, while another sees room for further improvement. The former group will want more hikes sooner, the latter fewer hikes later. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen should be taking a side in this critical debate and thus driving the direction of policy. Watch for her to provide guidance on this and inflation when she speaks on June 6.
Bottom Line: June is a live meeting. Really. Many Fed officials think the US economy has proven sufficiently resilient to resume hiking rates and would like to retain the option for 3 gradual hikes this year. That leaves June in play. Ultimately, I think they pass on June, but harmony is maintained only by placing a bullseye on July. Meeting participants will be positioning themselves ahead of the meeting. A divided Fed leaves Yellen with a new challenge. Will she lead the FOMC, or will it lead her?