Federal Reserve officials suggested that they might withdraw support for the economy more quickly than policymakers had previously expected, minutes from their December meeting showed, as a moment of uncomfortably high inflation forces them to reorient their policy path.
Central bankers projected last month that they would raise interest rates three times in 2022 as the economy healed and inflation remained above the Fed’s target. Economists and investors think that those increases could begin as soon as March, which is when the Fed is now expected to wrap up the large-scale bond buying program it has been using in tandem with low rates to stoke the economy.
Fed officials pointed to a stronger outlook for economic growth and the labor market as well as continuing inflation, saying that “it may become warranted to increase the federal funds rate sooner or at a faster pace than participants had earlier anticipated,” according to the minutes, which were released Wednesday.
Officials might then move to further cool off the economy by reducing the size of their balance sheet — where the bonds they bought are held. That could help to push up longer-term interest rates, which would make borrowing for many types of purchases more expensive and further weaken demand.
“Some participants also noted that it could be appropriate to begin to reduce the size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet relatively soon after beginning to raise the federal funds rate,” the minutes stated.
Markets reacted swiftly to the news. The major stock benchmarks, which had been slightly lower on Wednesday, dropped sharply after the Fed published the document at 2 p.m. The S&P 500 fell 1.9 percent, its biggest drop in weeks.
Government bond yields, a proxy for investor expectations about interest rates, jumped. The yield on 10-year Treasury notes climbed as high as 1.71 percent, its highest since April.
The Fed’s big asset purchases had been adding juice to the economy and markets with each passing month, so cutting them off will provide less momentum. Raising interest rates could do even more to slow growth: By making borrowing costs for houses, cars and credit cards more expensive, higher rates should slow spending, weigh on investment and eventually hold back hiring and tamp down prices.
The Fed faces trade-offs as it contemplates the path ahead. Higher interest rates could weaken a job market that is still pulling people back from the sidelines after 2020 pandemic lockdowns. But if the Fed waits too long or moves too slowly, businesses and consumers could begin to adjust their behavior to the very high inflation that has dogged the economy much of the past year. That could make it harder to bring price gains back under control — forcing more drastic, and potentially even recession-causing, rate increases down the road.
The minutes showed that both considerations weighed on policymakers’ minds as they considered their future actions, but as the labor market has healed swiftly, they have begun turning their attention decisively toward the threat of too-high inflation. The Fed is tasked with two main jobs, fostering maximum employment and keeping prices relatively stable.
“Several participants remarked that they viewed labor market conditions as already largely consistent with maximum employment,” the minutes said. At the same time, some officials noted that it might be smart to raise rates even if the job market was not fully recovered if inflation showed signs of jumping out of control.
“It does cement that they’re definitely pivoting strongly toward rate hikes,” Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan, said after the release. Although it’s hard to pin down the timing, he said, “they are moving toward putting policy in a more restrictive setting.”
There’s a reason for the Fed’s active stance. Inflation has been alarmingly high for much longer than central bankers expected. Last year, policymakers expected prices to pop temporarily as pandemic-affected sectors like airlines and restaurants recovered, then return to normal.
Instead, prices through November climbed the most since 1982, and monthly gains remained brisk. Factory shutdowns and tangled shipping lines have made it hard for suppliers to catch up with booming consumer demand for goods, forcing costs up. Price gains have also begun to spread: Rents are increasing more quickly, which could make high inflation more persistent.
Inflation is broadly expected to fade this spring, as prices are measured against relatively high levels from a year earlier. Prices may also decelerate as producers catch up with demand, officials hope. But policymakers lack certainty about when that will happen.
Officials projected in their December economic estimates that inflation will ease to 2.6 percent by the end of 2022, but estimates ranged from 2 percent to 3.2 percent. To put those numbers into context, the Fed’s preferred price index climbed 5.7 percent through November, and the central bank targets 2 percent annual gains on average over time.
Explaining their forecasts for more lasting high inflation, “participants pointed to rising housing costs and rents, more widespread wage growth driven by labor shortages and more prolonged global supply-side frictions, which could be exacerbated by the emergence of the Omicron variant,” the minutes said.
Officials have adapted their policy rapidly over the past few months as inflation has stirred unease. They announced that they would slow bond purchases, then promptly doubled the pace of that process. They went from signaling that they might or might not raise interest rates in 2022 to making it clear that they plan to do so.
The question is what will come next: Will the central bank need to accelerate its plans to pull back stimulus further? Or will inflation fade enough on its own that an aggressive central bank response will prove unnecessary?
Investors will also be closely watching how the Fed’s actions affect stock and other asset prices, which tend to benefit from bond buying and low rates. There’s an adage that the Fed’s job is to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going — and that is what it is gearing up to do.
Markets “have gotten used to not just a punch bowl but a spiked punch bowl,” said Nela Richardson, chief economist at ADP.
The new coronavirus variant, which could also slow hiring and growth, is also looming over the outlook.
“Many participants noted that the emergence of the Omicron variant made the economic outlook more uncertain,” the minutes said.