Federal Reserve members found themselves at a crossroads during their pivotal March meeting, torn between hiking rates in June, September—or even waiting until 2016, according to meeting minutes released Wednesday.
Ultimately, the Federal Open Market Committee opted to make a key linguistic move, dropping the word "patient" from previous post-meeting statements concerning the approach to raising interest rates.
While the record showed all but one member agreed with losing "patient," there was less of an accord about how to proceed down the real path of tightening monetary policy.
Members thought it "appropriate" to remove "patient" due to "considerable progress" being made toward achieving the Fed's twin goals of maximum employment and price stability.
They agreed that "an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate remained unlikely at the April FOMC meeting but that language in the Fed's guidance provided the FOMC with " the flexibility to begin raising the target range for the federal funds rate in June or at a subsequent meeting." Language immediately after, though, pointed out that some members believe a rate increase might not be warranted until 2016.
"This dichotomy speaks to the division on the board; they, as a whole, simply aren't sure what they're supposed to be doing right now given the divergent messages from any number of places," Dan Greenhaus, chief strategist at BTIG, said in a note.
The FOMC has kept its target funds rate near zero since late-2008 as it sought to lower borrowing costs and increase liquidity while in the throes of the financial crisis. Three phases of a monthly bond-buying program known as quantitative easing pushed the Fed's balance sheet past $4.5 trillion and resulted in strong stock market gains but only tepid economic growth.
With the unemployment rate sliding to 5.5 percent and the economy maintaining a steady if unspectacular level of growth, the Fed has sought an exit strategy from its historically aggressive monetary easing. That path has been made more difficult because inflation pressure, particularly in wages, remain low.
"With the time and energy and resources they've put into the recovery, they are incredibly sensitive around doing anything to derail that too soon," said Ray Nolte, co-managing partner and chief investment officer at SkyBridge Capital. "They have tremendous cover because the inflation outlook is so benign right now."
At the March meeting, FOMC members said they wanted flexibility in how to proceed. Fed Vice Chair Bill Dudley, the head of the New York branch, said at an event Wednesday that he believes recent economic slowing could push the first rate hike in nine years to later in the year, though June remains a possibility.
The March meeting also occurred before the employment report for that month. The Labor Department said Friday that nonfarm grew by just 126,000 for the month.
"Participants continued to think that an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate was unlikely in April," the minutes stated. "But, with continued improvement in economic conditions, they preferred language that would provide the Committee with the flexibility to subsequently adjust the target range for the federal funds rate on a meeting-by-meeting basis."
FOMC members noted labor market gains, stabilization of energy prices after a steep decline and a "leveling out" of U.S. dollar gains, which has been on a strong trajectory higher. Crude oil has tumbled 50.4 percent over the past 12 months, while the greenback has gained 22.6 percent during the same period.
Fed officials considered the first-quarter slowdown—with the consensus expecting GDP growth of less than 2 percent—weather-related.
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