The minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)’s September 21 meeting, released on Wednesday afternoon, indicate that the voting members of the Fed’s policymaking arm are divided on whether or not the economy is ready for a short-term rate increase.
The Fed has not raised short-term interest rates since December 2015 and has met six times since then without another rate hike, despite rampant speculation that one would take place before a couple of the meetings.
In the September 21 meeting, three of the FOMC’s 10 voting members (Esther George, Loretta Mester, and Eric Rosengren) voted to raise the federal funds rate by 25 basis points up to one-half to three-quarters, dissenting from the majority opinion that it would be prudent to keep the rate at one-quarter to one-half for at least another six weeks. The minutes of the September meeting said that “several (of the 10 policymaking voters) stated that the decision at this meeting was a close call.”
The FOMC will meet twice more before the end of 2016, on November 1-2 and December 13-14. While most analysts do not expect a rate increase in November, many are predicting one for December. A Reuters poll of primary dealers (banks that deal directly with the Fed) last week showed that 14 out of 15 of them think there will be a rate hike in the December FOMC meeting.
“The minutes from the FOMC’s September meeting continue to show stark divisions among committee members. With three dissenting voters, there is clearly a faction that wants to commence with rate hikes immediately,” said Curt Long, Chief Economist with the National Association of Federal Credit Unions (NAFCU). “Even within the group that voted to maintain rates where they are, there is apparently one segment which sees a rate hike as imminent, and another which prefers a more cautious approach. The former likely provided the impetus to add a sentence to the Fed’s release stating that the case for raising rates had strengthened. Another two months of decent performance from the labor market should be enough to prompt a rate hike in December.”
In the minutes for the September 21 meeting, the Committee maintained its “gradual” approach to raising the rates, stating that they “will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation. This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.”
As to when the next rate hike will occur, the minutes said, “Several members judged that it would be appropriate to increase the target range for the federal funds rate relatively soon if economic developments unfolded about as the Committee expected.”
The last two employment situations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the months of August and September, both reported slightly less-than-forecasted job gains. On Wednesday, New York Fed President Bill Dudley, a voting member of the FOMC who voted not to raise the rates in the September meeting, said there was “slack” in the labor market (too many underemployed or underutilized members of the workforce), adding that “I think we’re at a point where the economic expansion has plenty of room to run.”
With mortgage rates hovering above record lows for much of 2016, speculation is rampant about what effect a Fed rate hike would have on mortgage rates. Many do not think that a rate hike by the Fed will affect mortgage rates in the short term. But mortgage rates may already be on the rise—the MBA reported for the week ending October 7 that the average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage climbed from 3.62 percent up to 3.68 percent, while mortgage loan application volume was down 6 percent and refinance volume declined by 8 percent from the previous week.
Realtor.com Chief Economist Jonathan Smoke said that despite reports that mortgage rates have been steady over the last three to four months, they have actually been quite volatile.
“So here’s the most confident forecast I can give you about mortgage rates: We’ll see many news reports on Thursday about how rates have jumped in the past week,” Smoke said. “The average for the 30-year conforming rate will likely be reported on Thursday as being up more than 10 basis points and possibly up by as much as 14 basis points. The current upward movement in rates is a reflection of financial markets globally expecting less quantitative easing from the European Central Bank and another hike by the Federal Reserve this December. It is tough to predict exactly where rates will be in any given day, week, or month, but the general consensus from here is that we are likely to see a gradual movement upward.”
Click here to view the FOMC minutes from the September 21 meeting.