Fed keeps spigot open to aid economy

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Today’s meeting of the rate-setting committee at the Federal Reserve promised few surprises — and it delivered. No substantive changes were made to the policy statement and interest rates also were unchanged.

The central bank again committed to patience in considering the ideal timing of an increase in interest rates. The federal funds rate, the main lever used by the Federal Reserve to transmit policy goals, will remain ultralow, targeting between zero and 0.25 percent.

The Fed’s statement, in one word cloud. The more times a word was used, the larger it appears.

The quantitative-easing program may be gone, but it’s not forgotten. The Fed will continue to reinvest principal payments from its mortgage-backed securities holdings into similar securities. Proceeds from maturing Treasury securities also will be rolled over into new investments.

“That will just help to keep longer-term rates low, as well. That, in combination with the uncertainty internationally, is causing rates to drift lower and stay lower than originally anticipated,” says Mike Schenk, vice president of economics at the Credit Union National Association.

What about the economy?

The Federal Open Market Committee, or FOMC, pores over economic data to come to its policy conclusions. Though the minutes of the meeting, released three weeks after the policy decision, offer a more meaty serving of central bank thinking, the policy statement gives a brief glance at economic developments informing the policy decision.

The central bank categorized economic growth as “solid” this month, an upgrade from the appraisal levied in December of “moderate.”

One of the main considerations is price stability, or inflation. Inflation continues to lag below the level that the central bank would prefer, around 2 percent, as measured by the personal consumption expenditures index. The most recent reading showed an annual inflation rate of 1.41 percent.

“Inflation remains an issue,” says David Nice, economist at Mesirow Financial in Chicago. “The drop in oil prices is pulling down inflation, and that is exactly why the Fed watches core inflation.”

The Fed noted in the statement that the decline in oil prices “have boosted household purchasing power.” But the drop in inflation is being led largely by the decline in energy prices, and the central bank expects inflation to drop further in the near-term.

However, “the committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent over the medium term as the labor market improves further and the transitory effects of lower energy prices and other factors dissipate.”

Future inflation?

“The Fed’s primary job is to respond, not to what they see today, but what they anticipate will happen in the future. It’s not about looking at today’s inflation, but trying to noodle through where inflation will be in the future,” Schenk says.

Recently, market-based measures of future inflation have been diverging from survey-based measures. An example of a market-based measure of inflation is the spread between the 10-year Treasury yield and the yield on 10-year Treasury inflation-protected securities, or TIPS. The spread between those two yields recently forecast a rate of inflation of 1.3 percent over the next 10 years, according to Schenk. Survey-based measures get estimates from economists.

The policy statement from the Fed began referencing the gap between market versus survey measures in the statement issued after the Oct. 29, 2014, meeting. It was reiterated again today.

“I think there is really a challenge in that we do have this weakness in labor markets and the issue of not just low price increases but the declining rate of price increases,” Schenk says.

Nice says wages dipped in the last employment report. “That is a concern,” he says. The increase to the minimum wage in several states last year should give wages a boost in time.

Inflation and jobs are the main focus of the central bank, but there are many more economic variables under consideration, including housing and consumer and business spending — not to mention everything in the global economy.

With everything that’s going on in the world, including the recent asset-purchase program announced by the European Central Bank due to the threat of deflation, the Swiss central bank unexpectedly dropping its peg linking the value of the Swiss franc to the euro, and the global impact of falling energy prices, there’s more going on than meets the eye in this week’s relatively bland policy statement.

“The minutes for this meeting will be far more interesting,” Nice says.

New voters

There are new faces on the committee this year, and that means new opportunities for accord and dissent in the ranks. Two of last year’s dissenting voices, Narayana Kocherlakota and Richard W. Fisher, are off the voting committee this year. At this meeting, the statement received unanimous support. Today’s meeting was quiet on the surface, but tensions could surface at the FOMC meeting scheduled for March, which will include a press conference.