After an introductory briefing by the staff, meeting participants had a wide-ranging discussion of topics related to the path of monetary policy over the medium term, including strategic and communication issues associated with the Committee's asset purchase program as well as possibilities for clarifying or strengthening its forward guidance for the federal funds rate. In this context, participants discussed the financial market response to the Committee's decisions at its June and September meetings and, more generally, the complexities associated with communications about the Committee's current policy tools. A number of participants noted that recent movements in interest rates and other indicators suggested that financial markets viewed the Committee's tools--asset purchases and forward guidance regarding the federal funds rate--as closely linked. One possible explanation for this view was an inference on the part of investors that a change in asset purchases reflected a change in the Committee's outlook for the economy, which would be associated with adjustments in both the purchase program and the expected path of policy rates; another was a perspective that a change in asset purchases would be read as providing information about the willingness of the Committee to pursue its economic objectives with both tools. A couple of participants observed that the decision at the September FOMC meeting might have strengthened the credibility of monetary policy, as suggested by the downward shift in the expected path of short-term interest rates that had brought the path more closely into alignment with the Committee's forward guidance. Participants broadly endorsed making the Committee's communications as simple, clear, and consistent as possible, and discussed ways of doing so. With regard to the asset purchase program, one suggestion was to repeat a set of principles in public communications; for example, participants could emphasize that the program was data dependent, that any reduction in the pace of purchases would depend on both the cumulative progress in labor markets since the start of the program as well as the outlook for future gains, and that a continuing assessment of the efficacy and costs of asset purchases might lead the Committee to decide at some point to change the mix of its policy tools while maintaining a high degree of accommodation. Another suggestion for enhancing communications was to use the Summary of Economic Projections to provide more information about participants' views.
During this general discussion of policy strategy and tactics, participants reviewed issues specific to the Committee's asset purchase program. They generally expected that the data would prove consistent with the Committee's outlook for ongoing improvement in labor market conditions and would thus warrant trimming the pace of purchases in coming months. However, participants also considered scenarios under which it might, at some stage, be appropriate to begin to wind down the program before an unambiguous further improvement in the outlook was apparent. A couple of participants thought it premature to focus on this latter eventuality, observing that the purchase program had been effective and that more time was needed to assess the outlook for the labor market and inflation; moreover, international comparisons suggested that the Federal Reserve's balance sheet retained ample capacity relative to the scale of the U.S. economy. Nonetheless, some participants noted that, if the Committee were going to contemplate cutting purchases in the future based on criteria other than improvement in the labor market outlook, such as concerns about the efficacy or costs of further asset purchases, it would need to communicate effectively about those other criteria. In those circumstances, it might well be appropriate to offset the effects of reduced purchases by undertaking alternative actions to provide accommodation at the same time.
Participants generally expressed reservations about the possibility of introducing a simple mechanical rule that would adjust the pace of asset purchases automatically based on a single variable such as the unemployment rate or payroll employment. While some were open to considering such a rule, others viewed that approach as unlikely to reliably produce appropriate policy outcomes. As an alternative, some participants mentioned that it might be preferable to adopt an even simpler plan and announce a total size of remaining purchases or a timetable for winding down the program. A calendar-based step-down would run counter to the data-dependent, state-contingent nature of the current asset purchase program, but it would be easier to communicate and might help the public separate the Committee's purchase program from its policy for the federal funds rate and the overall stance of policy. With regard to future reductions in asset purchases, participants discussed how those might be split across asset classes. A number of participants believed that making roughly equal adjustments to purchases of Treasury securities and MBS would be appropriate and relatively straightforward to communicate to the public. However, some others indicated that they could back trimming the pace of Treasury purchases more rapidly than those of MBS, perhaps to signal an intention to support mortgage markets, and one participant thought that trimming MBS first would reduce the potential for distortions in credit allocation.
As part of the planning discussion, participants also examined several possibilities for clarifying or strengthening the forward guidance for the federal funds rate, including by providing additional information about the likely path of the rate either after one of the economic thresholds in the current guidance was reached or after the funds rate target was eventually raised from its current, exceptionally low level. A couple of participants favored simply reducing the 6-1/2 percent unemployment rate threshold, but others noted that such a change might raise concerns about the durability of the Committee's commitment to the thresholds. Participants also weighed the merits of stating that, even after the unemployment rate dropped below 6-1/2 percent, the target for the federal funds rate would not be raised so long as the inflation rate was projected to run below a given level. In general, the benefits of adding this kind of quantitative floor for inflation were viewed as uncertain and likely to be rather modest, and communicating it could present challenges, but a few participants remained favorably inclined toward it. Several participants concluded that providing additional qualitative information on the Committee's intentions regarding the federal funds rate after the unemployment threshold was reached could be more helpful. Such guidance could indicate the range of information that the Committee would consider in evaluating when it would be appropriate to raise the federal funds rate. Alternatively, the policy statement could indicate that even after the first increase in the federal funds rate target, the Committee anticipated keeping the rate below its longer-run equilibrium value for some time, as economic headwinds were likely to diminish only slowly. Other factors besides those headwinds were also mentioned as possibly providing a rationale for maintaining a low trajectory for the federal funds rate, including following through on a commitment to support the economy by maintaining more-accommodative policy for longer. These or other modifications to the forward guidance for the federal funds rate could be implemented in the future, either to improve clarity or to add to policy accommodation, perhaps in conjunction with a reduction in the pace of asset purchases as part of a rebalancing of the Committee's tools.
Participants also discussed a range of possible actions that could be considered if the Committee wished to signal its intention to keep short-term rates low or reinforce the forward guidance on the federal funds rate. For example, most participants thought that a reduction by the Board of Governors in the interest rate paid on excess reserves could be worth considering at some stage, although the benefits of such a step were generally seen as likely to be small except possibly as a signal of policy intentions. By contrast, participants expressed a range of concerns about using open market operations aimed at affecting the expected path of short-term interest rates, such as a standing purchase facility for shorter-term Treasury securities or the provision of term funding through repurchase agreements. Among the concerns voiced was that such operations would inhibit price discovery and remove valuable sources of market information; in addition, such operations might be difficult to explain to the public, complicate the Committee's communications, and appear inconsistent with the economic thresholds for the federal funds rate. Nevertheless, a number of participants noted that such operations were worthy of further study or saw them as potentially helpful in some circumstances.
At the end of the discussion, participants agreed that it would be helpful to continue reviewing these issues of longer-run policy strategy at upcoming meetings. No decisions on the substance were taken, and participants generally noted the usefulness of planning for various contingencies.