FOMC Minutes Give No Clear Signal, by Tim Duy: The FOMC minutes from the July 28-29 FOMC meeting were released today. Arguably they are stale. Arguably they have been overtaken by events. And because the Fed has been very good about not signaling their exact intentions, arguably you can read anything into them you want. If you want to take a hawkish view, I think you focus on this and similar portions of the minutes:
During their discussion of economic conditions and monetary policy, participants mentioned a number of considerations associated with the timing and pace of policy normalization. Most judged that the conditions for policy firming had not yet been achieved, but they noted that conditions were approaching that point. Participants observed that the labor market had improved notably since early this year, but many saw scope for some further improvement. Many participants indicated that their outlook for sustained economic growth and further improvement in labor markets was key in supporting their expectation that inflation would move up to the Committee's 2 percent objective, and that they would be looking for evidence that the economic outlook was evolving as they anticipated.
When considering a rate hike, "many" participants were willing to dismiss current low inflation if they believe evidence of stronger growth supports their conviction that inflation would trend toward target over time. The data since the July meeting tends to support that view. July retail sales were healthy, and revisions to previous months points toward upward revisions to second quarter GDP growth to 3.0 percent or higher. Industrial production was higher, perhaps starting to move past the declines related to the sharp drop in oil prices. Single family housing starts continued their slow but steady rise, reaching a level last seen in 2007. Homebuilder confidence is up. While manufacturing has been soft, the service sector as measured by the ISM non-manufacturing measure is picking up the slack. And the employment report was yet another in a long line of employment reports suggesting slow yet steady gains. Overall, a picture generally supportive of sustained growth and further improvement in labor markets.
A dovish view, however, could be easily derived from the following sentences and similar portions:
However, some participants expressed the view that the incoming information had not yet provided grounds for reasonable confidence that inflation would move back to 2 percent over the medium term and that the inflation outlook thus might not soon meet one of the conditions established by the Committee for initiating a firming of policy. Several of these participants cited evidence that the response of inflation to the elimination of resource slack might be attenuated and expressed concern about risks of further downward pressure on inflation from international developments. Another concern related to the risk of premature policy tightening was the limited ability of monetary policy to offset downside shocks to inflation and economic activity when the federal funds rate was near its effective lower bound.
Many market participants took this and related comments specifically referring to China and currency prices to argue that September was all but off the table. I would not be so quick; the former view is held by "many," whereas the latter was held by "some." Moreover, I find it hard to believe that any would think it a surprise that some officials explicitly discussed China and currencies. How could they not? How could you not think that in a wide-ranging discussion they had not discussed all that is both good and bad in the economy? That said, as I noted earlier, the minutes are stale. The depreciation of the yuan and further declines in commodity prices since the last FOMC meeting give reason to believe that the ranks of "some" has grown.
The latter points also appealed to those inclined against a rate hike. For instance, prior to the release of the minutes, the prescient Cullen Roche argued:
There is still a lot of chatter about the potential for a September rate hike by the Fed. I have to be honest – I think this is nuts at this point.
After the minutes he added:
My guess is that the odds of a Sept rate hike are fast approaching 0%.— Cullen Roche (@cullenroche) August 19, 2015
I am clearly sympathetic to the view that the Fed looks to be rushing with the rate hike talk. That said, it is what many officials are talking about since the last FOMC meeting while looking at the same data we are. Via John Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal:
Officials speaking since the July meeting have sent conflicting signals about where the group as a whole is most likely to go. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart said he was inclined to move in September. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said in an interview with Market News International on Wednesday he would push for it. But in an opinion piece written in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota said it would be a mistake and Fed governor Jerome Powell said earlier this month a decision hadn’t been made.
Lockhart is seen as swaying with the general consensus, which argues for September. Bullard arguably shouldn't be pushing for a rate hike given his path tendency to follow the direction of market-based inflation expectations, but the neo-Fisherians seem to be making some traction with him. Powell is wisely keeping his cards close to his chest. They should not, after all, have made any decisions yet. And I would say that if Kocherlakota feels so strongly a need to argue against a rate hike in the Wall Street Journal, he must think the momentum is shifting the other direction.
Former Federal Reserve Governor Lawrence Meyer is also interesting here:
“What are you worrying about, September or December? It doesn’t matter. Just pull the trigger,” said Laurence Meyer, co-founder of Macroeconomic Advisers, a research firm, in an interview before the release of the minutes.
Just sick of the debate and wanting to move on? Or a real conviction that the Fed is set to move?
Bottom Line: I have believed that there was a better than 50% chance that the Fed would move in September and am hesitant to move much below 50%. I didn't expect the minutes would give a clear signal regarding September, and am not surprised by the dimensions of the general discussion. And I am wary the Fed may be less responsive to financial market disruption than during most of the post-crisis era given than the economy is close to their estimate of full employment. This is shaping up to be one of the most contentious meetings since the tapering debates. We will soon learn more exactly what data the Fed is data dependent on.