Fed Officials Were Wary About Slow Inflation Progress at June Meeting

Federal Reserve officials were concerned about sluggish progress toward lower inflation and wary about the surprising staying power of the American economy at their June meeting — so much so that some even wanted to raise rates last month, instead of holding them steady as the central bank ultimately did, minutes from the gathering showed.

Fed officials decided to leave interest rates unchanged at their June 13-14 gathering to give themselves more time to see how the 10 straight increases they had previously made were affecting the economy. Higher interest rates slow the economy by making it more expensive to borrow and spend money, but it takes months or even years for their full effects to play out.

At the same time, officials released economic forecasts that suggested they would make two more quarter-point rate increases this year. That forecast was meant to send a message: Fed policymakers were simply slowing the pace of rate increases by taking a meeting off. They were not stopping their assault against rapid inflation.

The meeting minutes, released Wednesday, both reinforced the message that further interest rates increases were likely and offered more detail on the June debate — underscoring that Fed officials were divided about how the economy was shaping up and what to do about it.

All 11 of the Fed’s voting officials supported the June rate hold, but that unanimity concealed tensions under the surface. Some of the central bank’s officials — 18 in total, including 7 who do not vote on policy this year — were leaning toward a rate increase.

While “almost all” Fed officials thought it was “appropriate or acceptable” to leave rates unchanged in June, “some” either favored raising interest rates or “could have supported such a proposal” given continued strength in the labor market, persistent momentum in the economy, and “few clear signs” that inflation was getting back on track, the minutes showed.

And officials remained worried that if they failed to wrestle inflation under control quickly, there was a risk it could become such a normal part of everyday life that it would prove harder to stamp out down the road.

“Almost all participants stated that, with inflation still well above the Committee’s longer-run goal and the labor market remaining tight, upside risks to the inflation outlook or the possibility that persistently high inflation might cause inflation expectations to become unanchored remained key factors shaping the policy outlook,” the minutes said.

The minutes underlined what a difficult moment this is for the Fed. Inflation has come down notably on an overall basis, but that is partly because food and fuel prices are cooling off. An inflation measure that strips out those volatile categories — known as core inflation — is making much more halting progress. That has caught the Fed’s attention, especially given signs that the broader economy is holding up.

“Core inflation had not shown a sustained easing since the beginning of the year,” Fed officials noted at the meeting, according to the minutes, and they “generally” noted that consumer spending had been “stronger than expected.” Officials reported that they were hearing a range of reports from businesses, as some saw weaker economic conditions and others reported “greater-than-expected strength.”

The details of recent inflation data were also disquieting for some at the Fed. Officials noted that price increases for goods — physical purchases like furniture or clothing — were moderating, but less quickly than expected in recent months.

While rent inflation was expected to continue to cool down and help to lower overall inflation, “a few” officials were worried that it would come down less decisively than hoped amid low for-sale housing inventory and “less-than-expected deceleration” recently in rents for leases signed by new tenants. “Some” Fed officials noted that other service prices “had shown few signs of slowing in the past few months.”

Since the Fed’s meeting, officials have continued to signal that further rate increases are expected. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said during an appearance last week in Madrid that he would expect to continue with a slower pace of interest rate increases — but he did not rule out that officials could return to back-to-back rate moves.

“We did take one meeting where we didn’t move, so that’s in a way a moderation of the pace,” he explained. “So I would expect something like that to continue, assuming the economy evolves about as expected.”

The question for investors is what would prod the Fed to return toward a more aggressive path for rate increases — or, on the other hand, what would cause officials to hold off on future rate moves.

Policymakers have been clear that the path forward for interest rate increases could change depending on what happens with the economy. If inflation is showing signs of sticking around, the job market is unexpectedly strong and consumer spending continues to chug along, that might suggest that it will take even higher interest rates to cool down household and business spending to a point where companies are forced to stop raising prices so much.

If, on the other hand, inflation is coming down quickly, the job market is cooling and consumers are pulling back sharply, the Fed could feel more comfort in holding off on future rate increases.

For now, investors expect the Fed to raise interest rates at its July 25-26 meeting. And economists will closely watch fresh job market data set for release on Friday for the latest evidence of how the economy is evolving.

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