Thursday, October 04, 2012

FOMC Minutes: "Most participants agreed numerical thresholds could be useful"

by Bill McBride on 10/04/2012 02:10:00 PM

From the Fed: Minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee, September 12-13, 2012 . Excerpt:

Participants again exchanged views on the likely benefits and costs of a new large-scale asset purchase program. Many participants anticipated that such a program would provide support to the economic recovery by putting downward pressure on longer-term interest rates and promoting more accommodative financial conditions. A number of participants also indicated that it could lift consumer and business confidence by emphasizing the Committee's commitment to continued progress toward its dual mandate. In addition, it was noted that additional purchases could reinforce the Committee's forward guidance regarding the federal funds rate. Participants discussed the effectiveness of purchases of Treasury securities relative to purchases of agency MBS in easing financial conditions. Some participants suggested that, all else being equal, MBS purchases could be preferable because they would more directly support the housing sector, which remains weak but has shown some signs of improvement of late. One participant, however, objected that purchases of MBS, when compared to purchases of longer-term Treasury securities, would likely result in higher interest rates for many borrowers in other sectors. A number of participants highlighted the uncertainty about the overall effects of additional purchases on financial markets and the real economy. Some participants thought past purchases were useful because they were conducted during periods of market stress or heightened deflation risk and were less confident of the efficacy of additional purchases under present circumstances. A few expressed skepticism that additional policy accommodation could help spur an economy that they saw as held back by uncertainties and a range of structural issues. In discussing the costs and risks that such a program might entail, several participants reiterated their concern that additional purchases might complicate the Committee's efforts to withdraw monetary policy accommodation when it eventually became appropriate to do so, raising the risk of undesirably high inflation in the future and potentially unmooring inflation expectations. One participant noted that an extended period of accommodation resulting from additional asset purchases could lead to excessive risk-taking on the part of some investors and so undermine financial stability over time. The possible adverse effects of large purchases on market functioning were also noted. However, most participants thought these risks could be managed since the Committee could make adjustments to its purchases, as needed, in response to economic developments or to changes in its assessment of their efficacy and costs.

Participants also discussed issues related to the provision of forward guidance regarding the future path of the federal funds rate. It was noted that clear communication and credibility allow the central bank to help shape the public's expectations about policy, which is crucial to managing monetary policy when the federal funds rate is at its effective lower bound. A number of participants questioned the effectiveness of continuing to use a calendar date to provide forward guidance, noting that a change in the calendar date might be interpreted pessimistically as a downgrade of the Committee's economic outlook rather than as conveying the Committee's determination to support the economic recovery. If the public interpreted the statement pessimistically, consumer and business confidence could fall rather than rise. Many participants indicated a preference for replacing the calendar date with language describing the economic factors that the Committee would consider in deciding to raise its target for the federal funds rate. Participants discussed the benefits of such an approach, including the potential for enhanced effectiveness of policy through greater clarity regarding the Committee's future behavior. That approach could also bolster the stimulus provided by the System's holdings of longer-term securities. It was noted that forward guidance along these lines would allow market expectations regarding the federal funds rate to adjust automatically in response to incoming data on the economy. Many participants thought that more-effective forward guidance could be provided by specifying numerical thresholds for labor market and inflation indicators that would be consistent with maintaining the federal funds rate at exceptionally low levels. However, reaching agreement on specific thresholds could be challenging given the diversity of participants' views, and some were reluctant to specify explicit numerical thresholds out of concern that such thresholds would necessarily be too simple to fully capture the complexities of the economy and the policy process or could be incorrectly interpreted as triggers prompting an automatic policy response. In addition, numerical thresholds could be confused with the Committee's longer-term objectives, and so undermine the Committee's credibility. At the conclusion of the discussion, most participants agreed that the use of numerical thresholds could be useful to provide more clarity about the conditionality of the forward guidance but thought that further work would be needed to address the related communications challenges.
This suggests that the Fed will likely set QE3 targets for unemployment and inflation. As an example, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans has suggested that QE3 purchases should continue until the unemployment rate is below 7% or inflation at 3%.

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