Federal Reserve officials expressed increasing confidence at their meeting last month that the U.S. economy can withstand the head winds from the global economy, according to documents released Wednesday, but a vocal minority remained worried that the recovery is still vulnerable.
The minutes of the central bank’s October meeting shed light on the lingering divisions among the Fed’s top ranks over whether to raise its key interest rate for the first time in nearly a decade when they convene in Washington next month.
The documents show that most of the 17 Fed officials who participated in the debate expected that the economy would be ready for a rate increase by December. Delaying a move could increase uncertainty in financial markets, which have been scrutinizing officials’ every word for signs of when the decision might come: Investors might interpret additional delay as a sign of the central bank’s lack of confidence in the economy. Additionally, the Fed’s target rate has been at zero since 2008, and participants noted that the long period of extraordinary stimulus could be distorting the financial system.
But others argued that a rate hike could weigh on inflation, which has been below the Fed’s target for years. And with rates at zero, the Fed has little ammunition to combat another blow to the economy. In fact, several officials suggested the Fed should start brainstorming how it would add more stimulus if the recovery were to be derailed.
In a policy statement after its meeting last month, the Fed explicitly stated it could raise rates in December. The minutes show most officials thought the wording indicated they were leaning toward action but also “leaving policy options open.” A couple, however, were wary of telegraphing such a strong signal. Indeed, expectations that the Fed will move next month have jumped to more than 60 percent since the October meeting and a blockbuster October jobs report.
The Fed has historically been a secretive institution, with an idiosyncratic culture and language that investors have dubbed “Fed-speak.” The carefully written minutes provided a hint of a potential compromise among the two camps: Starting to raise the target rate relatively soon would make it more likely that subsequent moves will be more gradual.
Many investors had expected the Fed to lift off in September, but the central bank hesitated amid concerns about a hard landing for China’s slowing economy and the wild swings in financial markets that followed. In their October meeting, Fed officials were much more sanguine about the ripple effects for the American economy.
“The U.S. financial system appeared to have weathered the turbulence in global financial markets without any sign of systemic stress,” the minutes said.