The FOMC meeting ended largely as expected with a nod toward recent data improvement but no change in policy. It is still reasonable to believe that lift-off will occur in September, but only if incoming data removes any residual concern about the sloppy data from earlier this year. Still, as Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen emphasized Wednesday, the lift-off itself is less important than the subsequent path of rates. That path remains subdued.
The FOMC statement itself was little changed - see the Wall Street Journal statement tracker here. Key is the opening line that validates the belief that the first quarter weakness was largely transitory:
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in April suggests that economic activity has been expanding moderately after having changed little during the first quarter.
Otherwise, growth is expected to continue at a moderate pace that justifies an extended period of low interest rates. The updated forecasts saw reduced growth expectations this year as expected, while the near-term unemployment forecast was raised modestly (I had felt the Fed would be wary of doing this given their tendency to be overly pessimistic on this point). Longer term forecasts were essentially unchanged. The forecasts:
The highest interest rate forecasts for 2015 were eliminated as was virtually required given the lack of any rate hike Wednesday. The median rate forecast suggests a rate hike this year, as did Yellen in her press conference. Still, she also said they are looking for decisive evidence to justify a rate hike, and I suspect that evidence will not arrive prior to the July meeting. Maybe September. Maybe not. It's all meeting by meeting now, you know.
Interestingly, although the inflation and unemployment forecasts for 2016 and 2017 were largely unchanged, the median interest rate projection fell along with the most hawkish forecasts. See this handy chart from Fulcrum Asset Management:
No change in the inflation and unemployment forecasts combined with a slower and longer path to normal rates suggests a modest change in the reaction function. In effect, the Fed has turned more dovish as the timing of lift-off is delayed. Even with unemployment falling to current estimates of full employment next year, they do not believe the economy needs (or maybe could withstand) a rapid pace of hikes. Persistently low inflation and wage growth is taking its toll on policy expectations. And even the most hawkish participants are falling in line with this story.
Bottom Line: Fed policy unchanged as expected, door still open for a rate hike in September, but the lower rate path indicates a modestly more dovish Fed resigned to a persistent low interest rate environment. It's the rate path we need to be watching, not the timing of the first hike.