Fed: Housing Could Weaken As Fed MBS Buying Ends March 31, Renewed Private MBS Buying To Rescue

Below are our excerpts of key elements from Fed minutes from their last FOMC meeting on December 15-16. The excerpts cover the following: Fed’s view on whether economic recovery will last, support for tame inflation even with volatile energy prices, bank standards to remain tight because of commercial real estate strains, and jobless rate likely to remain near current 10% level. Perhaps most important, the Fed minutes also suggest banks could ease credit standards and also re-enter the private MBS market as economy improves. This would help ease long-term mortgage rate pressure caused by end of Fed’s MBS purchasing, but could also lead to inflation which would cause Fed to hike short rates.

Will the economic recovery continue?:

Participants expected the economic recovery to continue, but, consistent with experience following previous financial crises, most anticipated that the pickup in output and employment growth would be rather slow relative to past recoveries from deep recessions. A moderate pace of expansion would imply slow improvement in the labor market next year, with unemployment declining only gradually. Participants agreed that underlying inflation currently was subdued and was likely to remain so for some time. Some noted the risk that, over the next couple of years, inflation could edge further below the rates they judged most consistent with the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate for maximum employment and price stability; others saw inflation risks as tilted toward the upside in the medium term.

Bank standards likely to remain tight:

With rising levels of nonperforming loans expected to be a continuing source of stress, and with many regional and small banks vulnerable to the deteriorating performance of CRE loans, bank lending terms and standards were seen as likely to remain tight. Participants again noted the contrast between large and small firms’ access to financing. Large firms that can issue debt in the markets appeared to have relatively little difficulty obtaining credit. In contrast, smaller firms, which tend to be more dependent on commercial banks for financing, reportedly faced substantial constraints in gaining access to credit. While survey evidence suggested that small businesses considered weak demand to be a larger problem than access to credit, participants saw limited credit availability as a potential constraint on future investment and hiring by small businesses, which normally are a significant source of employment growth in recoveries.

Residential real estate and mortgage markets could face pressure as Fed’s MBS purchases wind down:

In the residential real estate sector, home sales and construction had risen relative to the very low levels reported in the spring; moreover, house prices appeared to be stabilizing and in some areas had reportedly moved higher. Generally, the outlook was for gains in housing activity to continue. However, some participants still viewed the improved outlook as quite tentative and again pointed to potential sources of softness, including the termination next year of the temporary tax credits for homebuyers and the downward pressure that further increases in foreclosures could put on house prices. Moreover, mortgage markets could come under pressure as the Federal Reserve’s agency MBS purchases wind down.

Banks could ease credit standards and also re-enter the private MBS market. This would help ease long-term mortgage rate pressure caused by end of Fed’s MBS purchasing, but could also lead to inflation which would cause Fed to hike short rates:

Moreover, a few participants noted that banks might seek, as the economy improves, to reduce their excess reserves quickly and substantially by purchasing securities or by easing credit standards and expanding their lending. A rapid shift, if not offset by Federal Reserve actions, could give excessive impetus to spending and potentially result in expected and actual inflation higher than would be consistent with price stability. To keep inflation expectations anchored, all participants agreed that monetary policy would need to be responsive to any significant improvement or worsening in the economic outlook and that the Federal Reserve would need to continue to clearly communicate its ability and intent to begin withdrawing monetary policy accommodation at the appropriate time and pace.

Fed will likely end MBS purchases by March 31, but it’s market dependent:

The Committee affirmed its intention to purchase $1.25 trillion of agency MBS and about $175 billion of agency debt by the end of the first quarter of 2010 and to gradually slow the pace of these purchases to promote a smooth transition in markets. The Committee emphasized that it would continue to evaluate the timing and overall amounts of its purchases of securities in light of the evolving economic outlook and conditions in financial markets. A few members noted that resource slack was expected to diminish only slowly and observed that it might become desirable at some point in the future to provide more policy stimulus by expanding the planned scale of the Committee’s large-scale asset purchases and continuing them beyond the first quarter, especially if the outlook for economic growth were to weaken or if mortgage market functioning were to deteriorate. One member thought that the improvement in financial market conditions and the economic outlook suggested that the quantity of planned asset purchases could be scaled back, and that it might become appropriate to begin reducing the Federal Reserve’s holdings of longer-term assets if the recovery gains strength over time.

Jobless rate likely to stay near current levels:

The weakness in labor markets continued to be an important concern to meeting participants, who generally expected unemployment to remain elevated for quite some time. The unemployment rate was not the only indicator pointing to substantial slack in labor markets: The employment-to-population ratio had fallen to a 25-year low, and aggregate hours of production workers had dropped more than during the 1981-82 recession. Although the November employment report was considerably better than anticipated, several participants observed that more than one good report would be needed to provide convincing evidence of recovery in the labor market.

Inflation looks to be under control even with energy price increases:

The staff forecast for inflation was nearly unchanged. The staff interpreted the increases in prices of energy and nonmarket services that recently boosted consumer price inflation as largely transitory. Although the projected degree of slack in resource utilization over the next two years was a little lower than shown in the previous staff forecast, it was still quite substantial. Thus, the staff continued to project that core inflation would slow somewhat from its current pace over the next two years. Moreover, the staff expected that headline consumer price inflation would decline to about the same rate as core inflation in 2010 and 2011.

Fed’s take on the key determinants of inflation:

Inflation can respond to deviations of economic activity from its longer-run sustainable path. However, in some theoretical frameworks, the connection between resource slack and inflation depends on the nature of the shock and its impact on marginal costs and markups. Moreover, estimates of the magnitude of slack and its effect on inflation are sensitive to the details of the analytical framework and the statistical methodology used in each study. While theory suggests that the degree of slack prevailing in foreign economies could affect domestic inflation, empirical evidence on the importance of such an effect was mixed. Evidence suggested that sizable shifts in the longer-run inflation expectations of households and firms had influenced the evolution of inflation over previous decades; in contrast, the anchoring of inflation expectations in recent years likely had damped somewhat the response of actual inflation to the recent economic downturn and to fluctuations in the prices of energy and other commodities. In discussing these issues, participants noted that they bear in mind the shocks hitting the economy and regularly monitor more than one measure of resource slack as they assess the outlook for economic activity and inflation. They also noted the importance of formulating monetary policy in ways that would work well across a range of possible economic structures rather than relying on any one analytical framework. Finally, they underscored the importance of keeping longer-run inflation expectations firmly anchored to help achieve the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate for maximum employment and price stability.