Thursday, May 22, 2008

Fed Minutes Forecast Recession

Yesterday's release of the minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee's April 29-30 meeting shook the markets. In particular, investors were put off by forecasts for slower economic growth and indications that no more rate cuts are in store. Just about the only good news that could be found in the minutes were references to stronger exports and slowing core inflation. At the same time, however, the Fed raised concerns about elevated overall inflation and rising expectations for future inflation. Committee members also expressed concern about slowing economies abroad, especially in Japan, the U.K., the euro zone, Canada, and Mexico.

The Fed actually expects U.S. GDP to contract during the first half of 2008, which of course is almost over. This is one way to say recession. The Fed remains hopeful, however, that the American economy will strengthen during the second half due to "accommodative monetary policy and fiscal stimulus." The former refers to the significant interest rate cuts that the Fed has already delivered. The latter refers to the tax rebate checks. Despite this expectation for a stronger second half, Fed economists reduced their projections for GDP growth for the full year. Their projections now range from just 0% to 1.5%, down significantly from the 1.0% to 2.2% range delivered just three months earlier.

Rebate checks are not likely to provide much stimulus. This money will probably be used to pay down debt or fill the family car's gas tank a few times. Real fiscal stimulus requires tax cuts. Unfortunately, there is no hope of that happening in the current political climate.

The minutes also said that "most members viewed the decision to reduce interest rates at this meeting as a close call." They don't want to cut rates again unless things really go to hell in a handbasket. The Fed said, it is "unlikely to be appropriate to ease policy in response to information suggesting that the economy was slowing further or even contracting slightly in the near term."

Two FOMC members actually voted against the latest cut. Richard Fisher warned that rate cuts were hampering economic activity by reducing the value of the dollar and contributing to the rise in import and commodity prices.

So there we have it. According to the Fed, although we can expect much slower economic growth than we previously anticipated, we can no longer count on further interest rate reductions. There certainly wasn't much in the report to be optimistic about. Of course, that explains the big sell-off in stocks that took place soon after the minutes were released.