Meeting Participants' Views and Committee Policy Action
In the discussion of the economic situation and outlook, nearly all meeting participants said that conditions had deteriorated relative to their expectations at the time of the January meeting. The slowdown was widespread across sectors. Large declines in equity prices, a further drop in house prices, and mounting job losses threatened to further depress consumer spending, despite some firming in the recent retail sales data and forthcoming tax reductions. Business capital spending was weakening in an environment of uncertainty and low business confidence. Of particular note was the apparent sharp fall in foreign economic activity, which was having a negative effect on U.S. exports. Credit conditions remained very tight, and financial markets remained fragile and unsettled, with pressures on financial institutions generally intensifying this year. Overall, participants expressed concern about downside risks to an outlook for activity that was already weak. With regard to the outlook for inflation, all participants agreed that inflation pressures were likely to remain subdued, and several expressed the view that inflation was likely to persist below desirable levels.
District business contacts indicated that production and sales were declining steeply. Some industries that previously were less affected, such as agriculture and energy, had begun to suffer the effects of the slowdown. Businesses reported that bank financing was becoming more expensive and more difficult to obtain. Expenditures were being cut substantially for a wide range of capital equipment, and spending on nonresidential structures had recently turned down. Inventory liquidation was continuing, but inventory-sales ratios remained elevated as sales slowed. Against this backdrop, participants anticipated further employment cutbacks over coming months, though perhaps at a gradually diminishing rate.
Several participants said that the degree and pervasiveness of the decline in foreign economic activity was one of the most notable developments since the January meeting. In light of this development, it was widely agreed that exports were not likely to be a source of support for U.S. economic activity in the near term.
Participants did not interpret the uptick in housing starts in February as the beginning of a new trend, but some noted that there was only limited scope for housing activity to fall further. Nonetheless, large inventories of unsold homes relative to sales and the prospect of a continued high level of distressed sales would continue to hold down residential investment in the near term. Several participants noted the tentative signs of stabilization in consumer spending in January and February. However, others suggested that strains on household balance sheets from falling equity and house prices, reduced credit availability, and the fear of unemployment could well lead to further increases in the saving rate that would damp consumption growth in the near term.
Overall, most participants viewed downside risks as predominating in the near term, mainly owing to potential adverse feedback effects as reduced employment and production weighed on consumer spending and investment, and as the weakening economy boosted the prospective losses of financial institutions, leading to a further tightening of credit conditions.
Looking beyond the very near term, a number of market forces and policies now in place were seen as eventually leading to economic recovery. Notably, the low level of mortgage interest rates, reduced house prices, and the Administration's new programs to encourage mortgage refinancing and mitigate foreclosures ultimately could bring about a lower cost of homeownership, a sustained increase in home sales, and a stabilization of house prices. The household saving rate, which had already risen considerably, would eventually level out and cease to hold back consumption growth. Business inventories would come into line with even a low level of sales, and the pressure on production from inventory drawdowns would diminish. Fiscal and monetary policies were likely to contribute significantly to aggregate demand in coming quarters. Participants expressed a variety of views about the strength and timing of the recovery, however. Some believed that the natural resilience of market forces would become evident later this year. Others, who saw recovery as delayed and potentially weak, were concerned about a possible further rise in the saving rate and a very slow improvement in financial conditions. Some participants also cautioned that, because of the poor functioning of the financial system, capital and labor were not being allocated to their most productive uses, and this failure threatened to damp the recovery and reduce the potential growth of the economy over the medium term.
Participants saw little chance of a pickup in inflation over the near term, as rising unemployment and falling capacity utilization were holding down wages and prices and inflation expectations appeared subdued. Several expressed concern that inflation was likely to persist below desired levels, with a few pointing to the risk of deflation. Even without a continuation of outright price declines, falling expectations of inflation would raise the real rate of interest and thus increase the burden of debt and further restrain the economy.
Some indicators, including share prices and CDS spreads of financial institutions, suggested a worsening of financial market strains since January. However, for the most part, participants viewed conditions in financial markets as little changed but remaining extraordinarily stressed. The large volume of issuance of investment-grade corporate bonds in recent weeks was a notable bright spot. Participants shared comments received from financial industry contacts on their experiences with and concerns about recent government programs to stabilize the financial system. These contacts feared that uncertainties about future actions the government might take and future regulations it might impose were making it more difficult to plan and were discouraging participation in government efforts to stabilize the financial system. Participants agreed that a credible and widely understood program to deal with the troubles of the banking system could help restore business and consumer confidence. Many viewed the strengthening of the banking system as essential for a sustained and robust recovery.
In the discussion of monetary policy for the intermeeting period, Committee members agreed that substantial additional purchases of longer-term assets eligible for open market operations would be appropriate. Such purchases would provide further monetary stimulus to help address the very weak economic outlook and reduce the risk that inflation could persist for a time below rates that best foster longer-term economic growth and price stability. One member preferred to focus additional purchases on longer-term Treasury securities, whereas another member preferred to focus on agency MBS. However, both could support expanded purchases across a range of assets, and several members noted that working across a range of assets and instruments was appropriate when the effects of any one tactic were uncertain. Members agreed that the monetary base was likely to grow significantly as a consequence of additional asset purchases; one, in particular, stressed that sustained increases in the monetary base were important to ensure that policy was consistently expansionary. Members expressed a range of views as to the preferred size of the increase in purchases. Several members felt that the significant deterioration in the economic outlook merited a very substantial increase in purchases of longer-term assets. In contrast, the potential for a large increase over time in the size of the balance sheet from the TALF program was seen as supporting a more modest, though still substantial, increase in asset purchases. Ultimately, members agreed to undertake additional purchases of agency MBS of up to $750 billion and of agency debt of up to $100 billion, and they also agreed to purchase up to $300 billion of longer-term Treasury securities. The Committee believed that purchases of these amounts would help to promote a return to economic growth and price stability. The period for conducting the agency debt and MBS purchases was extended from the next three months to the next nine months; members agreed to allow the Desk flexibility within this horizon to respond to market conditions. Treasury purchases were to be conducted over the next six months. Members also noted the recent launch of the TALF, and they agreed to include in the Committee's statement an indication that the range of assets accepted as eligible collateral for the TALF was likely to be expanded. Committee members decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and to communicate to the public the Committee's view that the federal funds rate was likely to remain exceptionally low for an extended period.
At the conclusion of the discussion, the Committee voted to authorize and direct the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, until it was instructed otherwise, to execute transactions in the System Account in accordance with the following domestic policy directive:
"The Federal Open Market Committee seeks monetary and financial conditions that will foster price stability and promote sustainable growth in output. To further its long-run objectives, the Committee seeks conditions in reserve markets consistent with federal funds trading in a range from 0 to 1/4 percent. The Committee directs the Desk to purchase GSE debt, GSE-guaranteed MBS, and longer-term Treasury securities during the intermeeting period with the aim of providing support to private credit markets and economic activity. The timing and pace of these purchases should depend on conditions in the markets for such securities and on a broader assessment of private credit market conditions. The Committee anticipates that the combination of outright purchases and various liquidity facilities outstanding will cause the size of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet to expand significantly in coming months. The Desk is expected to purchase up to $200 billion in housing-related GSE debt by the end of this year. The Desk is expected to purchase at least $500 billion in GSE-guaranteed MBS by the end of the second quarter of this year and is expected to purchase up to $1.25 trillion of these securities by the end of this year. The Committee also directs the Desk to purchase longer-term Treasury securities during the intermeeting period. Over the next six months, the Desk is expected to purchase up to $300 billion of longer-term Treasury securities. The System Open Market Account Manager and the Secretary will keep the Committee informed of ongoing developments regarding the System's balance sheet that could affect the attainment over time of the Committee's objectives of maximum employment and price stability."
The vote encompassed approval of the statement below to be released at 2:15 p.m.:
"Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in January indicates that the economy continues to contract. Job losses, declining equity and housing wealth, and tight credit conditions have weighed on consumer sentiment and spending. Weaker sales prospects and difficulties in obtaining credit have led businesses to cut back on inventories and fixed investment. U.S. exports have slumped as a number of major trading partners have also fallen into recession. Although the near-term economic outlook is weak, the Committee anticipates that policy actions to stabilize financial markets and institutions, together with fiscal and monetary stimulus, will contribute to a gradual resumption of sustainable economic growth.
In light of increasing economic slack here and abroad, the Committee expects that inflation will remain subdued. Moreover, the Committee sees some risk that inflation could persist for a time below rates that best foster economic growth and price stability in the longer term.
In these circumstances, the Federal Reserve will employ all available tools to promote economic recovery and to preserve price stability. The Committee will maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and anticipates that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period. To provide greater support to mortgage lending and housing markets, the Committee decided today to increase the size of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet further by purchasing up to an additional $750 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities, bringing its total purchases of these securities to up to $1.25 trillion this year, and to increase its purchases of agency debt this year by up to $100 billion to a total of up to $200 billion. Moreover, to help improve conditions in private credit markets, the Committee decided to purchase up to $300 billion of longer-term Treasury securities over the next six months. The Federal Reserve has launched the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility to facilitate the extension of credit to households and small businesses and anticipates that the range of eligible collateral for this facility is likely to be expanded to include other financial assets. The Committee will continue to carefully monitor the size and composition of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet in light of evolving financial and economic developments."
Voting for this action: Messrs. Bernanke and Dudley, Ms. Duke, Messrs. Evans, Kohn, Lacker, Lockhart, Tarullo, and Warsh, and Ms. Yellen.
Voting against this action: None.
It was agreed that the next meeting of the Committee would be held on Tuesday-Wednesday, April 28-29, 2009. The meeting adjourned at 1:35 p.m. on March 18, 2009.