Some Fed members worried that keeping rates low would encourage too much risk-taking, minutes show

Key Points
  • Fed officials worried about low interest rates that "could exacerbate imbalances in the financial sector," according to minutes from the December meeting.
  • The central bank voted to keep rates steady and indicated no changes are likely for 2020.
  • Officials also expressed concern about inflation and emphasized the need to get the level up to 2%.
Fed: Risks to economic outlook appeared to ease in recent months
Fed: Risks to economic outlook appeared to ease in recent months

Federal Reserve officials worried at their last meeting that keeping interest rates low might encourage excessive risk-taking in the financial markets, according to minutes from the session released Friday.

Central bankers voted on Dec. 11 to hold their benchmark funds rate steady in a targeted range of 1.5%-1.75%. Moreover, they indicated that further increases are unlikely in 2020 so long as the economic data remains consistent.

"A few participants raised the concern that keeping interest rates low over a long period might encourage excessive risk-taking, which could exacerbate imbalances in the financial sector," the meeting summary read. Concerns also were raised that such low rates "could make the next recession more severe than otherwise" if risk-taking leads to financial instability.

The issues were raised as Wall Street was closing out a banner year, with the S&P 500 rising more than 30% in the best year since 2013.

Along with worries relating to risk, members worried about inflation, with that concern taking precedence and leading members to keep rates where they are and indicate that further moves would be unlikely at least through 2020. The minutes said policy was "likely to remain appropriate for a time as long as incoming information about the economy remained broadly consistent with the economic outlook."

Watch CNBC's full interview with Chicago Fed President Charles Evans
Watch CNBC's full interview with Chicago Fed President Charles Evans

In the official statement, the committee said it feels that "the current stance of monetary policy is appropriate to support sustained expansion of economic activity, strong labor market conditions, and inflation near the Committee's 2 percent objective."

Following the meeting, Chairman Jerome Powell told media members that inflation would be the primary driver behind whether the central bank adjusts rates. He said he would need to see a sustained rise before he would push for higher rates.

The minutes reflected that Powell's sentiments on inflation are widespread. Members pushed for language in the statement to make it clear that the committee would not be content with inflation that ran persistently below the 2% target that Fed economists believe reflects solid growth.

There also was some talk about communicating the inflation goal to the public.

At the central bank's "Fed Listens" public forums, the general feeling has been a lack of understanding for why low inflation is bad. Fed officials worry that low inflation expectations can create a self-fulfilling cycle and hold back growth. As a result, officials "emphasized that communications about the Committee's resolve to return inflation to 2 percent need to be backed with actions and results to ensure that the public sees these communications as credible."

Individual officials also changed their projections for rates, with only four of the 17 members indicating a potential rate hike in 2020.

The minutes did little to address the market operations the Fed has been conducting since the mid-September tumult in the overnight lending, or repo, market. The Fed has been buying $60 billion a month of Treasury bills along with conducting daily short-term operations to keep the plumbing for the banking system running smoothly and to maintain the funds rate, used as a benchmark for short-term borrowing, in the target range of 1.5%-1.75%.

Watch CNBC's full interview with Dallas Fed president Robert Kaplan
Watch CNBC's full interview with Dallas Fed president Robert Kaplan

The minutes noted that the New York Fed trading desk "is closely monitoring reserves and money market conditions and that it is prepared to adjust plans as needed."

The minutes also suggested that Fed officials are prepared to have to switch from buying some T-bills to longer-duration coupon-bearing notes in case the operation to keep bank reserves at an ample level fall short.