The June FOMC meeting is live. That message came through loud and clear in the minutes, and was subsequently confirmed by New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley. Last week, via Reuters:
"We are on track to satisfy a lot of the conditions" for a rate increase, Dudley said. He added, though, that a key factor arguing for the Fed biding its time a little was the potential for market turmoil around Britain’s vote in late June about whether to leave the European Union...
..."If I am convinced that my own forecast is sort of on track, then I think a tightening in the summer, the June-July time frame is a reasonable expectation," said Dudley, a permanent voting member of the Fed's rate-setting committee.
Boston Federal Reserve President Eric Rosengren, the canary in the coal mine that was long ago alerting markets that they were underestimating June, subsequently gave a strong nod to June in his interview with Sam Fleming of the Financial Times:
We are still a month away from the actual meeting. We are going to get another employment rate in early June. We are going to get a second retail sales report. So I want to be sensitive to how the data comes in, but I would say that most of the conditions that were laid out in the minutes as of right now seem to be . . . on the verge of broadly being met...
Clearly, the Fed will be debating a rate hike at the next FOMC meeting. Will they or won't they? To answer that question, I need to begin with my main takeaways from the minutes:
1.) The Fed broadly agrees that the economic recovery remains intact. Overall there is broad agreement at the Fed that outside of manufacturing (for both domestic and external reasons), economic activity has moderated but remains near or somewhat below their estimates of potential growth and hence is sufficient to drive further improvement in labor markets. The weak first quarter numbers were largely statistical noise attributable to faulty seasonal adjustment mechanisms. Data since the April meeting generally supports this story. The economy is not falling over a cliff, recession is not likely, nothing to see here, folks.
2.) A contingent, however, disagreed with the benign scenario:
However, some participants were concerned that transitory factors may not fully explain the softness in consumer spending or the broad-based declines in business investment in recent months. They saw a risk that a more persistent slowdown in economic growth might be under way, which could hinder further improvement in labor market conditions.
This group will want fairly strong evidence that the first quarter was an anomaly before the sign off on the next rate hike.
3.) There was broad agreement of the obvious - global and financial market threats waned since the previous meeting. The Fed recognized that their hesitation to hike rates helped firm markets. It's important that they recognize that if the economy weathers a bout of financial market turbulence, it is often with the aid of easier Fed policy. Some Fed speakers appeared not to recognize this relationship earlier this year.
4.) Still, the risks are either balanced or to the downside. Apparently, none of the participants saw risks weighed to the upside. While some participants believe the threats had lessened sufficiently to justify a balanced outlook:
Several FOMC participants judged that the risks to the economic outlook were now roughly balanced.
the view was not widely shared:
However, many others indicated that they continued to see downside risks to the outlook either because of concerns that the recent slowdown in domestic spending might persist or because of remaining concerns about the global economic and financial outlook. Some participants noted that global financial markets could be sensitive to the upcoming British referendum on membership in the European Union or to unanticipated developments associated with China's management of its exchange rate.
It seems reasonable that this large group will need to see further diminishment of downside risks to justify a hike in June. Brexit doesn't derail a June hike unless it looks to be negatively impacting financial markets.
5.) The question of full employment deeply divides the Fed. Who wins this debate is critical to defining the policy path going forward. One group thinks the economy is not at full employment:
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.
But others saw room for further improvement:
Many other participants continued to see scope for reducing labor market slack as labor demand continued to expand.
The Fed's plan had been to let the economy run hot enough for long enough to eliminate underemployment. One sizable camp within the Fed thinks this largely been accomplished. This is the group that is itching for more hikes earlier. This is a place where Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen should have an opinion and be willing to guide on that opinion. In the past, she has sided with the "still underemployment" camp.
6.) The Fed is also split on the inflation outlook but most believe inflation is set to trend toward target. A nontrivial contingent saw downside risks to the inflation outlook due to soft inflation expectations:
Several commented that the stronger labor market still appeared to be exerting little upward pressure on wage or price inflation. Moreover, several continued to see important downside risks to inflation in light of the still-low readings on market-based measures of inflation compensation and the slippage in the past couple of years in some survey measures of expected longer-run inflation.
But the majority were either neutral or dismissive of the signal from expectations:
However, for many other participants, the recent developments provided greater confidence that inflation would rise to 2 percent over the medium term.
7.) June is on the table. I have long warned that market participants were underestimating the odds of a rate hike in June. This came across loud and clear in the minutes:
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.
Consider that the Fed's modus operandi is to delay an expected policy change for two meetings in the face of market turmoil. Hence given calmer financial markets, June could not be so easily dismissed. But it was not just the financial markets that stayed the Fed's hand. It was also softer Q1 data. As of April, participants had not concluded that they would see what they were looking for to justify a rate hike.
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. 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.
Moreover, these are participants, not committee members. The actual voters members appeared less committed to June, saying only:
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.
Here are my thoughts, assuming of course the data and the financial markets hold up over the next few weeks:
A.) There is a rate hike likely in the near-ish future. There seems to be broad agreement that, at a minimum, the pace of activity remains sufficient to bring the Fed's goals - both maximum employment and price stability - closer into view. Close enough that most voters will soon think another rate hike is appropriate. The doves can't push it off forever.
B.) The Fed will consider June, and there is likely some support among the voting members for a June hike. But ultimately, I think most will want a more complete picture of the second quarter before hiking rates. Also, the contingent that remains less convinced by the inflation outlook will press for more time. Moreover, they will also need broad agreement that the risks to the outlook are at least balanced. It would indeed be silly to plow forward with rate hikes if most members thought the risks were still weighted to the downside, even if the data were broadly consistent with the Fed's forecast. That agreement of balanced risks just might not be there by June.
C.) Fed doves might, however, need to strike a compromise to hold the line on June and avoid more than one or two dissents. That compromise could be a strong signal about the July meeting via the statement, the press conference, or, most likely, both. A July hike would also serve to end the idea that the Fed can't hike rates without a press conference.
D.) The reason compromise might be necessary is the possibility of a fairly stark divide between voting members. Assume Esther George, Eric Rosengren, and James Bullard will push for a rate hike in June. Furthermore, assume that Lael Brainard opposes a rate hike, and has sufficient leverage to pull Dan Tarullo and William Dudley to her side. Janet Yellen might prefer to negotiate a compromise rather than face the prospect of multiple dissents from either camp.
E.) Of all the divisive points above, I think the most important is the debate over the level of full employment. The ability of the doves to slow the pace of subsequent rate hikes will hinge on their willingness to push for below NAIRU unemployment to alleviate underemployment. If the doves maintain the upper hand, the path of subsequent rate hikes will be very, very shallow. I cannot emphasize enough that this is a debate in which Janet Yellen has the opportunity to take leadership that fundamentally defines her preferred rate path going forward. Does she stick with the bottom dots?
Bottom Line: This is not a drill. This meeting is the real thing - an undoubtedly lively debate that could end with a rate hike. I think we narrowly avoid a rate hike, but at the cost of moving forward the next hike to the July meeting.