Saturday, November 17, 2012

FOMC Mulls Change of Tactics to Fed Funds Rate Changes

The latest Federal Reserve Open Market Committee ("FMOC") minutes reveal serious consideration of an approach to monetary policy whereby the Fed uses quantitative triggers based on unemployment rates and inflation, as opposed to date-based thresholds, to guide its changes in the federal funds rate.  This is an approach championed by Charles Evans, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.  Under Evans's approach to monetary policy, the Federal Reserve would promise to keep rates at zero until unemployment drops to a certain level unless inflation reaches a particular ceiling. The October 23-24, 2012 minutes show that the Evans approach may be gaining some support among the FOMC, although some participants urged caution.

A staff presentation focused on the potential effects of using specific threshold values of inflation and the unemployment rate to provide forward guidance regarding the timing of the initial increase in the federal funds rate. The presentation reviewed simulations from a staff macroeconomic model to illustrate the implications for policy and the economy of announcing various threshold values that would need to be attained before the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) would consider increasing its target for the federal funds rate. Meeting participants discussed whether such thresholds might usefully replace or perhaps augment the date-based guidance that had been provided in the policy statements since August 2011. Participants generally favored the use of economic variables, in place of or in conjunction with a calendar date, in the Committee's forward guidance, but they offered different views on whether quantitative or qualitative thresholds would be most effective. Many participants were of the view that adopting quantitative thresholds could, under the right conditions, help the Committee more clearly communicate its thinking about how the likely timing of an eventual increase in the federal funds rate would shift in response to unanticipated changes in economic conditions and the outlook. Accordingly, thresholds could increase the probability that market reactions to economic developments would move longer-term interest rates in a manner consistent with the Committee's view regarding the likely future path of short-term rates. A number of other participants judged that communicating a careful qualitative description of the indicators influencing the Committee's thinking about current and future monetary policy, or providing more information about the Committee's policy reaction function, would be more informative than either quantitative thresholds or date-based forward guidance. Several participants were concerned that quantitative thresholds could confuse the public by giving the impression that the FOMC focuses on a small number of economic variables in setting monetary policy, when the Committee in fact uses a wide range of information. Some other participants worried that the public might mistakenly interpret quantitative thresholds as equivalent to the Committee's longer-run objectives or as triggers that, when reached, would prompt an immediate rate increase; but it was noted that the Chairman's postmeeting press conference and other venues could be used to explain the distinction between thresholds and these other concepts.
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