Monetary Policy Report submitted to the Congress on February 23, 2018, pursuant to section 2B of the Federal Reserve Act
Economic activity increased at a solid pace over the second half of 2017, and the labor market continued to strengthen. Measured on a 12-month basis, inflation has remained below the Federal Open Market Committee's (FOMC) longer-run objective of 2 percent. The FOMC raised the target range for the federal funds rate twice in the first half of 2017, resulting in a range of 1 to 1-1/4 percent by the end of its June meeting. With the federal funds rate rising toward more normal levels, at its September meeting, the FOMC decided to initiate a program of gradually and predictably reducing the size of its balance sheet. At its meeting in December, the Committee judged that current and prospective economic conditions called for a further increase in the target range for the federal funds rate, to 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 percent.
Economic and Financial Developments
The labor market. The labor market has continued to strengthen since the middle of last year. Payroll employment has posted solid gains, averaging 182,000 per month in the seven months starting in July 2017, about the same as the average pace in the first half of 2017. Although net job creation last year was slightly slower than in 2016, it has remained considerably faster than what is needed, on average, to absorb new entrants into the labor force. The unemployment rate declined from 4.3 percent in June to 4.1 percent in January--somewhat below the median of FOMC participants' estimates of its longer-run normal level. Other measures of labor utilization also suggest that the labor market has tightened since last summer. Nonetheless, wage growth has been moderate, likely held down in part by the weak pace of productivity growth in recent years.
Inflation. Consumer price inflation has remained below the FOMC's longer-run objective of 2 percent. The price index for personal consumption expenditures increased 1.7 percent over the 12 months ending in December 2017, about the same as in 2016. The 12-month measure of inflation that excludes food and energy items (so-called core inflation), which historically has been a better indicator of where overall inflation will be in the future than the headline figure, was 1.5 percent in December--0.4 percentage point lower than it had been one year earlier. However, monthly readings on core inflation were somewhat higher during the last few months of 2017 than earlier in the year. Measures of longer-run inflation expectations have, on balance, been generally stable, although some measures remain low by historical standards.
Economic growth. Real gross domestic product (GDP) is reported to have increased at an annual rate of nearly 3 percent in the second half of 2017 after rising slightly more than 2 percent in the first half. Consumer spending expanded at a solid rate in the second half, supported by job gains, rising household wealth, and favorable consumer sentiment. Business investment growth was robust, and indicators of business sentiment have been strong. The housing market has continued to improve slowly. Foreign activity remained solid and the dollar depreciated further in the second half, but net exports subtracted from real U.S. GDP growth as imports of consumer and capital goods surged late in the year.
Financial conditions. Financial conditions for businesses and households have eased on balance since the middle of 2017 amid an improving global growth outlook. Notwithstanding financial market developments in recent weeks, broad measures of equity prices are higher, and spreads of yields on corporate bonds over those of comparable-maturity Treasury securities have narrowed. Most types of consumer loans remained widely available, though credit was still difficult to access in credit card and mortgage markets for borrowers with low credit scores or harder-to-document incomes. Longer-term nominal Treasury yields and mortgage rates have moved up on net. The dollar depreciated, on average, against the currencies of our trading partners. In foreign financial markets, equity prices generally increased in the second half of 2017, and most of those indexes remain higher, on net, despite recent declines. Most longer-term yields rose noticeably.
Financial stability. Vulnerabilities in the U.S. financial system are judged to be moderate on balance. Valuation pressures continue to be elevated across a range of asset classes even after taking into account the current level of Treasury yields and the expectation that the reduction in corporate tax rates should generate an increase in after-tax earnings. Leverage in the nonfinancial business sector has remained high, and net issuance of risky debt has climbed in recent months. In contrast, leverage in the household sector has remained at a relatively low level, and household debt in recent years has expanded only about in line with nominal income. Moreover, U.S. banks are well capitalized and have significant liquidity buffers.
Interest rate policy. The FOMC continued to gradually increase the target range for the federal funds rate. After having raised it twice in the first half of 2017, the Committee raised the target range for the federal funds rate again in December, bringing it to the current range of 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 percent. The decision to increase the target range for the federal funds rate reflected the solid performance of the economy. Even with this rate increase, the stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting strong labor market conditions and a sustained return to 2 percent inflation.
The FOMC expects that, with further gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace and labor market conditions will remain strong. Inflation on a 12-month basis is expected to move up this year and to stabilize around the Committee's 2 percent objective over the next few years. The federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. Consistent with this outlook, in the most recent Summary of Economic Projections (SEP), which was compiled at the time of the December FOMC meeting, the median of participants' assessments for the appropriate level of the federal funds rate through the end of 2019 remains below the median projection for its longer-run level. (The December SEP is presented in Part 3 of this report.) However, as the Committee has continued to emphasize, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data. In particular, with inflation having persistently run below the 2 percent longer-run objective, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected inflation developments relative to its symmetric inflation goal.
Balance sheet policy. In the second half of 2017, the Committee initiated the balance sheet normalization program that is described in the Addendum to the Policy Normalization Principles and Plans the Committee issued in June.1 Specifically, since October, the Federal Reserve has been gradually reducing its holdings of Treasury and agency securities by decreasing the reinvestment of principal payments it receives from these securities.
How tight is the labor market? Although there is no way to know with precision, the labor market appears to be near or a little beyond full employment at present. The unemployment rate is somewhat below most estimates of its longer-run normal rate, and the labor force participation rate is relatively close to many estimates of its trend. Although employers report having more difficulties finding qualified workers, hiring continues apace, and serious labor shortages would likely have brought about larger wage increases than have been evident to date. (See the box "How Tight Is the Labor Market?" in Part 1.)
Low global inflation. Inflation has generally come in below central banks' targets in the advanced economies for several years now. Resource slack and commodity prices--as well as, for the United States, movements in the U.S. dollar--appear to explain inflation's behavior fairly well. But our understanding is imperfect, and other, possibly more persistent, factors may be at work. Resource slack at home and abroad might be greater than it appears to be, or inflation expectations could be lower than suggested by the available indicators. Moreover, some observers have pointed to increased competition from online retailers or international developments--such as global economic slack or the integration of emerging economies into the world economy--as contributing to lower inflation. Policymakers remain attentive to the possibility of such forces leading to continued low inflation; they also are watchful regarding the opposite risk of inflation moving undesirably high. (See the box "Low Inflation in the Advanced Economies" in Part 1.)
Monetary policy rules. Monetary policymakers consider a wide range of information on current economic conditions and the outlook before deciding on a policy stance they deem most likely to foster the FOMC's statutory mandate of maximum employment and stable prices. They also routinely consult monetary policy rules that connect prescriptions for the policy interest rate with variables associated with the dual mandate. The use of such rules requires careful judgments about the choice and measurement of the inputs into these rules as well as the implications of the many considerations these rules do not take into account. (See the box "Monetary Policy Rules and Their Role in the Federal Reserve's Policy Process" in Part 2.)
Statement on Longer-Run Goals and Monetary Policy Strategy
Adopted effective January 24, 2012; as amended effective January 30, 2018
The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) is firmly committed to fulfilling its statutory mandate from the Congress of promoting maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates. The Committee seeks to explain its monetary policy decisions to the public as clearly as possible. Such clarity facilitates well-informed decisionmaking by households and businesses, reduces economic and financial uncertainty, increases the effectiveness of monetary policy, and enhances transparency and accountability, which are essential in a democratic society.
Inflation, employment, and long-term interest rates fluctuate over time in response to economic and financial disturbances. Moreover, monetary policy actions tend to influence economic activity and prices with a lag. Therefore, the Committee's policy decisions reflect its longer-run goals, its medium-term outlook, and its assessments of the balance of risks, including risks to the financial system that could impede the attainment of the Committee's goals.
The inflation rate over the longer run is primarily determined by monetary policy, and hence the Committee has the ability to specify a longer-run goal for inflation. The Committee reaffirms its judgment that inflation at the rate of 2 percent, as measured by the annual change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures, is most consistent over the longer run with the Federal Reserve's statutory mandate. The Committee would be concerned if inflation were running persistently above or below this objective. Communicating this symmetric inflation goal clearly to the public helps keep longer-term inflation expectations firmly anchored, thereby fostering price stability and moderate long-term interest rates and enhancing the Committee's ability to promote maximum employment in the face of significant economic disturbances. The maximum level of employment is largely determined by nonmonetary factors that affect the structure and dynamics of the labor market. These factors may change over time and may not be directly measurable. Consequently, it would not be appropriate to specify a fixed goal for employment; rather, the Committee's policy decisions must be informed by assessments of the maximum level of employment, recognizing that such assessments are necessarily uncertain and subject to revision. The Committee considers a wide range of indicators in making these assessments. Information about Committee participants' estimates of the longer-run normal rates of output growth and unemployment is published four times per year in the FOMC's Summary of Economic Projections. For example, in the most recent projections, the median of FOMC participants' estimates of the longer-run normal rate of unemployment was 4.6 percent.
In setting monetary policy, the Committee seeks to mitigate deviations of inflation from its longer-run goal and deviations of employment from the Committee's assessments of its maximum level. These objectives are generally complementary. However, under circumstances in which the Committee judges that the objectives are not complementary, it follows a balanced approach in promoting them, taking into account the magnitude of the deviations and the potentially different time horizons over which employment and inflation are projected to return to levels judged consistent with its mandate.
The Committee intends to reaffirm these principles and to make adjustments as appropriate at its annual organizational meeting each January.
1. The June addendum is available on the Board's website at https://www.federalreserve.gov/monetarypolicy/files/FOMC_PolicyNormalization.20170613.pdf. Return to text