Earlier this year, in the minutes of its April meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) conveyed that:
“Some [FOMC] participants were concerned that market participants may not have properly assessed the likelihood of an increase in the target range at the June meeting, and they emphasized the importance of communicating clearly over the intermeeting period how the Committee intends to respond to economic and financial developments. … It was noted that communications could help the public understand how the Committee might respond to incoming data and developments over the upcoming intermeeting period. Some members expressed concern that the likelihood implied by market pricing that the Committee would increase the target range for the federal funds rate at the June meeting might be unduly low.”
Translation: To value bonds, stocks and currencies, market participants need to understand how the Federal Reserve will react to incoming macro data and developments. In April, at least some members “expressed concern” that the market then didn’t understand the Fed’s reaction function and that more communication could help.
In the minutes of the June meeting, we learned that despite a great deal of public commentary from Fed officials since the April meeting – including a statement from Chair Janet Yellen herself on 27 May that a rate hike could be appropriate “in the coming months” – many participants remained fixated on communication:
“Several participants expressed concern that the Committee’s communications had not been fully effective in informing the public how incoming information affected the Committee’s view of the economic outlook, its degree of confidence in the outlook, or the implications for the trajectory of monetary policy.”
So again in June, the Fed was worried that “communication had not been fully effective” and that the public still did not understand its reaction function.
Coming clean on the reaction function
But perhaps the problem is not inadequate communication, but rather the need for transparent communication that this Fed does not have a reaction function. Or more precisely, perhaps the problem is that the FOMC has 16 individual reaction functions plus the reaction function of the chair, which she is either unwilling or unable to persuade the entire FOMC to adopt.
The minutes of the July Fed meeting released today confirm this impression. They tell us that “some” voting members of the FOMC want to hike rates “soon,” and that a couple of participants – which can include nonvoting members – wanted to hike at the July meeting. However, at least a “couple” of members wanted to wait for “more evidence that inflation would rise to 2% on a sustained basis.” Noteworthy in this regard was the minutes’ discussion of core PCE inflation, the Fed’s preferred measure. Core PCE inflation is increasing at close to a 2% annual rate, “but it was noted that some of the increase likely reflected transitory effects that would be in part reversed during the second half of the year.”
These minutes tell us that Fed “communications released in conjunction with the June FOMC meeting were interpreted by market participants as more accommodative than expected.”
This is a Fed that continues to be mystified why it is misunderstood by market participants and observers. Right now, observers think a September policy rate hike is off the table. Chair Yellen will have her chance at Jackson Hole to put September in play. But after these minutes, “soon” does not look like September.
Richard Clarida is PIMCO’s global strategic advisor and a regular contributor to the PIMCO Blog.