The FOMC minutes indicates the Fed is just a dovish as believed. This was somewhat surprising given the tendency of minutes to have a more balanced perspective, which would appear to be hawkish relative to current market expectations. But not this time. This time, the message was fairly clear: they can't ignore the asymmetry of policy risks any longer. Gradual went to glacial, with April now off the table, leaving June as the next possible data for a rate hike. Expect Fedspeak to sound somewhat hawkish, given they will want to keep June on the table - but I am less than certain they will have the data in hand to justify another hike until the second half of the year.
Meeting participants were generally confident in the outlook:
With respect to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market, participants shared the assessment that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, real GDP would continue to increase at a moderate rate over the medium term and labor market indicators would continue to strengthen. Participants observed that strong job gains in recent months had reduced concerns about a possible slowing of progress in the labor market.
But outside of the consumer, all is not rosy:
Many participants, however, anticipated that relative strength in household spending would be partially offset by weakness in net exports associated with lackluster foreign growth and the appreciation of the dollar since mid-2014. In addition, business fixed investment seemed likely to remain sluggish.
And global concerns loomed large:
Furthermore, participants generally saw global economic and financial developments as continuing to pose risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market in the United States. In particular, several participants expressed the view that the underlying factors abroad that led to a sharp, though temporary, deterioration in global financial conditions earlier this year had not been fully resolved and thus posed ongoing downside risks.
Caveats abound, however:
Several participants also noted the possibility that economic activity or labor market conditions could turn out to be stronger than anticipated. For example, strong expansion of household demand could result in rapid employment growth and overly tight resource utilization, particularly if productivity gains remained sluggish.
Is the economy at full employment? Maybe...:
Some participants judged that current labor market conditions were at or near those consistent with maximum sustainable employment, noting that the unemployment rate was at or below their estimates of its longer-run normal level and citing anecdotal reports of labor shortages or increased wage pressures.
... Maybe not:
In contrast, some other participants judged that the economy had not yet reached maximum employment. They noted several indicators other than the unemployment rate that pointed to remaining underutilization of labor resources; these indicators included the still-high rate of involuntary part-time employment and the low level of the employment-to-population ratio for prime-age workers. The surprisingly limited extent to which aggregate data indicated upward pressure on wage growth also suggested some remaining slack in labor markets.
The climb in the unemployment rate since the March meeting supports the latter over the former. There were mixed views regarding the inflation outlook:
Participants commented on the recent increase in inflation. Some participants saw the increase as consistent with a firming trend in inflation. Some others, however, expressed the view that the increase was unlikely to be sustained, in part because it appeared to reflect, to an appreciable degree, increases in prices that had been relatively volatile in the past.
But concerns about too low inflation clearly dominated:
Several participants indicated that the persistence of global disinflationary pressures or the possibility that inflation expectations were moving lower continued to pose downside risks to the inflation outlook. A few others expressed the view that there were also risks that could lead to inflation running higher than anticipated; for example, overly tight resource utilization could push inflation above the Committee's 2 percent goal, particularly if productivity gains remained sluggish.
And there was concern that low inflation was bleeding into expectations:
Some participants concluded that longer-run inflation expectations remained reasonably stable, but some others expressed concern that longer-run inflation expectations may have already moved lower, or that they might do so if inflation was to persist for much longer at a rate below the Committee's objective.
Notably, no one was concerned that inflation expectations were trending up. The consensus was stable or deteriorating. One-sided risks.
The primary reason the Fed anticipates stable growth this year is because they marked down interest rate forecasts:
... most participants, while recognizing the likely positive effects of recent policy actions abroad, saw foreign economic growth as likely to run at a somewhat slower pace than previously expected, a development that probably would further restrain growth in U.S. exports and tend to damp overall aggregate demand. Several participants also cited wider credit spreads as a factor that was likely to restrain growth in demand. Accordingly, many participants expressed the view that a somewhat lower path for the federal funds rate than they had projected in December now seemed most likely to be appropriate for achieving the Committee's dual mandate. Many participants also noted that a somewhat lower projected interest rate path was one reason for the relatively small revisions in their medium-term projections for economic activity, unemployment, and inflation.
Altogether, the risks are simply too one-sided to ignore:
Several participants also argued for proceeding cautiously in reducing policy accommodation because they saw the risks to the U.S. economy stemming from developments abroad as tilted to the downside or because they were concerned that longer-term inflation expectations might be slipping lower, skewing the risks to the outlook for inflation to the downside. Many participants noted that, with the target range for the federal funds rate only slightly above zero, the FOMC continued to have little room to ease monetary policy through conventional means if economic activity or inflation turned out to be materially weaker than anticipated, but could raise rates quickly if the economy appeared to be overheating or if inflation was to increase significantly more rapidly than anticipated. In their view, this asymmetry made it prudent to wait for additional information regarding the underlying strength of economic activity and prospects for inflation before taking another step to reduce policy accommodation.
The winter turmoil made the asymmetric risks all too real. They need to allow the economy to run hot to justify sufficient rate hikes to drive a wedge between policy and the zero bound. They need to make a choice: risk inflation, or risk returning to the zero bound? They are coming around to seeing the former as a less costly risk than the latter.
This begs the question of how quick they will be to react to inflation that overshoots 2%. I don't think they will react too quickly - they will need to tolerate some overshooting to avoid cutting the recovery off at the knees. It will still be about the balance of risks until interest rates are much higher.
Finally, the Fed pretty much decided they wouldn't have enough data to hike rates in April:
A number of participants judged that the headwinds restraining growth and holding down the neutral rate of interest were likely to subside only slowly. In light of this expectation and their assessment of the risks to the economic outlook, several expressed the view that a cautious approach to raising rates would be prudent or noted their concern that raising the target range as soon as April would signal a sense of urgency they did not think appropriate. In contrast, some other participants indicated that an increase in the target range at the Committee's next meeting might well be warranted if the incoming economic data remained consistent with their expectations for moderate growth in output, further strengthening of the labor market, and inflation rising to 2 percent over the medium term.
It is not clear that they will in June either. First-quarter growth numbers are looking weak, so they may want a clear picture of the second quarter before acting. That speaks to July or September.
Bottom Line: The Fed is on hold until they are sufficiently confident they can make a liftoff stick. The bar is higher now, given the focus on asymmetric risks. They won't want to take June off the table just yet, so expect them to say that it is still too early to rule it out. April, however, is set to be a yawner.