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Federal Reserve officials acknowledged that the policy path ahead is "less clear" after approving an interest rate hike at their most recent meeting.
Minutes released Wednesday from the Federal Open Market Committee gathering in December showed the rate hike came with reluctance from a few members who thought the lack of inflationary pressures argued against another increase.
The officials agreed that "some further gradual increases" in the benchmark funds rate would be appropriate. What that would translate to in practical terms, though, became less clear for a central bank that only a few months earlier was pointing to four hikes in 2019.
The minutes noted that the low-inflationary backdrop means the Fed can "afford to be patient about further policy firming."
The Fed hiked its benchmark rate a quarter point to a range of 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent, the fourth increase in the year and the ninth since policy normalization began in December 2015.
"With an increase in the target range at this meeting, the federal funds rate would be at or close to the lower end of the range of estimates of the longer-run neutral interest rate, and participants expressed that recent developments, including the volatility in financial markets and the increased concerns about global growth, made the appropriate extent and timing of future policy firming less clear than earlier," the meeting summary stated.
The indecision was reflected in rate forecasts among individual members. Officials cut their expected moves this year from four to two, citing a range of concerns about growth and volatility in the financial markets.
"Concerns over escalating trade tensions, global growth prospects, and the sustainability of corporate earnings growth were among the factors that appeared to contribute to a significant drop in U.S. equity prices," the minutes said.
The misgivings about future policy came before recent public statements from Fed officials echoing a softening course.
Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, in remarks on Friday while seated next to his predecessors Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke, said policymakers will be "patient" when approaching policy decisions. As reflected in the minutes, sentiment among Fed officials is that the economy remains strong, but they're attuned to downside risks that the market perceives.
Among those cited most prominently were "the possibilities of a sharper-than-expected slowdown in global economic growth, a more rapid waning of fiscal stimulus, an escalation in trade tensions, a further tightening of financial conditions, or greater-than-anticipated negative effects from the monetary policy tightening to date."
The minutes noted that "a number" of members believe the Fed should assess how those risks "that had become more pronounced in recent months might unfold" and how they would impact economic activity. Also, these officials called for a look into how the impact the Fed's actions were having as they are "still working their way through the economy."
Member also emphasized that policy is "not on a preset course," that data would dictate further actions and that "the ultimate endpoint of future rate increases" was still unknown.
"If incoming information prompted meaningful reassessments of the economic outlook and attendant risks, either to the upside or the downside, their policy outlook would change," the minutes said.
Members discussed removing the "forward guidance" portion of post-meeting statements that expresses general sentiment about the future path of hikes. Instead, the statements would simply note that the Fed will be data dependent regarding future increases.
Some of that work has begun already.
The statement after the December meeting replaced the phrase "the Committee expects that further gradual increases" would be appropriate, to "judges that some further gradual increases" are coming. Using "judges," the minutes noted, was a signal to markets of the data-dependency the Fed will employ. Also, "some" was meant to imply a "relatively limited amount" of hikes would be coming.
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