In minutes released Wednesday of the Fed's Nov. 2-3 meeting, Fed officials maintained that the spike in inflation seen this year was still likely to be transitory while acknowledging that the rise in prices had been greater than expected.
The minutes covered a meeting in which the Fed voted to take the first step to roll back the massive support it has provided to an economy pushed into a recession last year after widespread lockdowns to contain the COVID virus.
At the November meeting, the Fed approved reductions in the amount of Treasury bonds and mortgage backed securities it had been purchasing to put downward pressure on long-term interest rates. The committee approved reducing by $15 billion in November and another $15 billion cut in December in the $120 billion in monthly bond purchases it had been making. The expectation was that these reductions would continue until the bond purchase program was phased out in the middle of next year.
Inflation in recent months has been hitting levels not seen in decades. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and other Fed officials have argued that the prices pressures were likely to be transitory and fade away once problems such as supply chain bottlenecks are resolved.
But the Fed minutes showed a growing concern that the unwanted price pressures could last for a longer time and the Fed should be prepared to move to reduce bond purchases more quickly or even start raising the Fed's benchmark interest rate sooner to make sure inflation did not get out of hand.
“Various participants noted that the committee should be prepared to adjust the pace of asset purchases and raise the target range for the federal funds rate sooner than participants currently anticipated if inflation continued to run higher than levels consistent with the committee's objectives,” the minutes said.
Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics, said she still believes the Fed will not rush into hiking rates. She bases that view on her forecast that inflation will moderate significantly by mid-2022 and the Fed's maximum employment goal will not be reached until the end of next year.
But she said that given the sizable inflation gains reported for October and increased inflation worries by some Fed members, she expects the central bank will accelerate the bond reductions. Under that scenario, the reductions would be completed by the end of April rather than June, with the first rate hikes coming in September rather than her earlier forecast for rate hikes starting in December of next year.
She said it was significant that the minutes noted that “price increases had become more widespread” with the increases being driven by higher energy costs, faster wage gains and increases in residential rents.
The Fed’s policy rate was cut to a record low of 0% to 0.25% in the spring of 2020 as the Fed focused its efforts on keeping the COVID recession from spiraling into a deeper downturn. Since the Fed's November meeting, a few Fed officials have publicly expressed an openness to accelerating the pace of winding down the monthly bond purchases.
Fed Vice Chairman Richard Clarida said last week that he would be looking closely at incoming economic data before the Fed's next meeting on Dec. 14-15 to determine whether it would be appropriate to increase the pace of the reductions in bond purchases.