The FOMC raised the target range for the federal funds rate by 25bp today, as expected. But the tone of the press conference and the summary of economic projections were more hawkish than I anticipated. The Fed is shifting gears, a shift I did not expect until more data piled up in the first quarter of 2017.
My error in analyzing this meeting was thinking that the Fed would nudge down the longer term estimate of unemployment - essentially, the natural rate of unemployment - on the basis the 4.6% unemployment rate in November. Such a downward drift happened in 2015:
I expected something similar given that the pace of inflation and wage gains remains moderate. But the Fed stuck to their prior estimates, 4.8% with a central tendency of 4.7-5.0% and an overall range of 4.5-5.0%. They didn't budge.
What did budge was the rate forecast, the dots. The median dot shifted up 25bp; the September median forecast of 50bp of rate hikes for 2017 is now 75bp. My interpretation is that rather than showing up in a declining estimate of the natural rate, the unemployment drop showed up as a rise in the rate forecast. This is important. It is almost as if the Fed is drawing a line in the sand with an increased confidence that they have the correct natural rate estimate. Their tolerance for further declines below that line is wearing thin.
Assuming that the natural rate forecast does not change - which essentially depends on the path of wages and inflation - this means that you should anticipate that further declines in unemployment will be met with a more aggressive Fed in 2017. I don't think this will be the last increase in the median rate forecast for 2017.
It is reasonable to argue that the median dot doesn't really represent the Fed's forecast for rates. But I think the shifts in the dots at a minimum reflect general changes in sentiment. Down for more dovish. Up for more hawkish. This is more hawkish.
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen exuded confidence in the economic outlook during the press conference. Three points were particularly notable:
- The Fed is obviously watching the path of fiscal policy, but it is too early to say what it meant for monetary policy. She did note, however, that fiscal stimulus was not needed to help the economy reach full employment. The implication was that fiscal policy designed to boost demand rather than productivity would be met by a faster pace of rate increases. This sets the stage for a potential conflict with the Trump Administration.
- She repeatedly argued that her run a "high-pressure" economy comments from October were misinterpreted. She was recommending a research program, not a policy path. If you were expecting otherwise, time to get over it.
- She did not dismiss the possibility of staying on as a board member after her term as Chair ends. Another potential conflict with the Trump Administration.
Bottom Line: Sentiment on Constitution Ave. is shifting toward a modestly more hawkish stance a few months ahead of my schedule. Policymakers finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.