By Greg Robb, MarketWatch
Some policymakers think a trio of rate hikes would be too aggressive, others believe that pace would be too slow
The Federal Reserve in December forecast three rate hikes in 2018 but minutes of that central bank meeting released Wednesday (https://www.federalreserve.gov/monetarypolicy.htm) show a distinct lack of unity with the projection.
The minutes portray two camps, of roughly the same size, who are both uncomfortable with the forecast -- and for completely different reasons.
One camp of a "few" officials, on the dovish side, believe that three rate hikes this year might be too aggressive. These officials argued that three rate hikes might prevent a "sustained" return to the Fed's 2% inflation target. They said they didn't think interest rates had much further to rise before reaching the level of rates that would no longer be "accommodative" or boosting growth.
The other, more hawkish, camp of a "few" officials thought the forecast of three rate hikes was too slow. These officials noted that financial conditions had not tightened since the Fed started raising rates at the end of 2015 and that continued low rates risked financial instability.
"FOMC 'hawks' continue to be rate-normalization gradualists. The FOMC 'doves' are perpetual pessimists who view rate normalization as an anathema, and will grab any available straw to slow the process," said Ward McCarthy, chief financial economist at Jefferies.
With the minutes release, stocks held onto their earlier gains (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/dow-flirts-with-fresh-records-as-traders-wait-for-fed-minutes-2018-01-03).
Ironically, at the same time that Fed officials appear not entirely convinced of their own forecast, the market has come around to basically accepting it.
Investors have penciled in a 70% chance of a rate hike at the central bank's March meeting and have now priced in slightly higher chances of another move by December.
Minutes from meeting showed that Fed officials expect only a modest impact on the economy from the Republican tax plan (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/trump-today-president-says-corporations-going-wild-as-he-signs-tax-bill-into-law-2017-12-22). The Fed staff said it pushed up its forecast for GDP growth modestly because the final tax plan was larger than assumed.
The tense debate about the path of rates spilled over into other issues, notably the inflation outlook.
While a majority of officials believe inflation will gradually return to the Fed's 2% target, "several" other officials think the pace of inflation may stay soft.
The 12-month rate of inflation based on the Fed's preferred core PCE index stands at 1.5%, below the bank's 2% target.
On the Republican tax cut plan, Fed officials were pretty lukewarm.
They saw a modest boost to capital spending from Washington's actions, but the benefits to the economy were uncertain.
While this had the chance of having some "positive supply-side effects" including the expansion of the economy's growth potential over the next few years, the central bank's business contacts seemed cautious or suggested the increase in cash flow might be used for mergers, debt reduction and stock buybacks that don't have wide economic benefits.
At the December meeting, by a 7-2 vote, the Fed increased its benchmark federal-funds rate by a quarter percentage point to a range between 1.25% and 1.5%, the third increase of the year. That move was widely expected.
-Greg Robb; 415-439-6400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires