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January 06, 2012
In the interest of precision
As you may have heard, the minutes of the December 13 meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) contained the news that, starting with this month's meeting, committee members will be jointly publishing not only their personal projections for gross domestic product growth, unemployment, and inflation, but also the monetary policy assumptions that underlie those forecasts. In an article published earlier this week, the enhancement to these projections, known as the Summary of Economic Projections (SEP), was described in the Wall Street Journal this way (with my emphasis added):
"Federal Reserve officials this month will begin detailing their plans for short-term interest rates, a move that could show that the central bank's easy-money policies will remain in place for years and give the economy a boost."
A similar description appeared in the Journal yesterday (again, emphasis added):
"The Fed has just taken a historic step towards increasing its transparency and accountability by saying it will begin to release interest-rate projections several years out at the conclusion of its next policy meeting on Jan. 25. This means Fed officials will soon let the world know exactly what path they believe interest rates will follow—and they, after all, set the path of interest rates."
I added the emphasis in both of those passages because I think the highlighted language isn't quite right. Here is the actual language that appears in the FOMC minutes:
"In the SEP, participants' projections for economic growth, unemployment, and inflation are conditioned on their individual assessments of the path of monetary policy that is most likely to be consistent with the Federal Reserve's statutory mandate to promote maximum employment and price stability, but information about those assessments has not been included in the SEP.…
"… participants decided to incorporate information about their projections of appropriate monetary policy into the SEP beginning in January. Specifically, the SEP will include information about participants' projections of the appropriate level of the target federal funds rate in the fourth quarter of the current year and the next few calendar years, and over the longer run; the SEP also will report participants' current projections of the likely timing of the first increase in the target rate given their projections of future economic conditions."
The minutes are pretty clear about what this information is intended to convey…
"Most participants agreed that adding their projections of the target federal funds rate to the economic projections already provided in the SEP would help the public better understand the Committee's monetary policy decisions and the ways in which those decisions depend on members' assessments of economic and financial conditions."
…and what it is not intended to convey (here too, emphasis added):
"Some participants expressed concern that publishing information about participants' individual policy projections could confuse the public; for example, they saw an appreciable risk that the public could mistakenly interpret participants' projections of the target federal funds rate as signaling the Committee's intention to follow a specific policy path rather than as indicating members' conditional projections for the federal funds rate given their expectations regarding future economic developments. Most participants viewed these concerns as manageable…"
In fact, the first Journal piece mentioned above does document some of the expressed concerns near the end of the article. For example:
"… some might mistakenly see the forecasts as an ironclad commitment, rather than a projection that could change as economy evolves."
That caveat does speak to concerns of some FOMC participants that the projections would establish a specific policy path. But the issue is about more than maintaining flexibility in the face of changing economic conditions. The broader point is that the new information in the SEPs, according to the minutes, is not intended to be a device for signaling the policy path that the FOMC, by official vote, intends to pursue.
This may seem like a small detail. But when it comes to the central bank's communications tools, even the small details matter.
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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