Fed Still Hopes It Can Gradually Hike Rates, but Trump Could Be an Issue
Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen

The Federal Reserve still hopes it can boost interest rates slowly -- but with Donald Trump heading for Washington, they are not totally sure.

That's the message from the minutes of the December meeting of the central bank's Open Markets Committee. With Trump planning a tax cut of up to $6 trillion, plus vowing to spend on tax subsidies to leverage up to $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, the minutes show the committee's deliberations shadowed by concerns that the new president will overheat the economy.

But the bulk of the minutes cover why that's probably not going to become a big problem. Inflation is still very low, and below the Fed's 2% annual target increase. Wage growth isn't strong enough yet, nearly eight years into the expansion, that Trump's policies will make the Fed raise rates faster than the gradual pace it has been planning, the minutes say.

Just in case, the minutes lay down a marker for how a faster-than-expected run of rate hikes could happen:

Many participants judged that the risk of a sizable undershooting of the longer-run normal unemployment rate had increased somewhat and that the Committee might need to raise the federal funds rate more quickly than currently anticipated to limit the degree of undershooting and stem a potential buildup of inflationary pressures. However, with inflation still below the Committee's 2% objective, it was noted that downside risks to inflation remained and that a moderate undershooting of the longer-run normal unemployment rate could help return inflation to 2%. A couple of participants expressed concern that the Committee's communications about a gradual pace of policy firming might be misunderstood as a commitment to only one or two rate hikes per year; participants agreed that policy would need to respond appropriately to the evolving outlook.

The 13 pages of minutes boil down to one big case of "yes, but."

Yes, the Committee is worried that Trump will scramble its understanding of the economy. Without taking sides on the president-elect's agenda, committee members indicated that expansionary fiscal policy could push unemployment below the level the economy can sustain without inflation, faster and further than expected. Those questions affect exporters like Boeing (BA) and General Electric (GE) , manufacturers like Ford (F) and General Motors (GM) , and even big consumer companies like Walmart Stores (WMT) and Amazon (AMZN) .

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Now, here comes the but, in two bullet points.

The first bullet point is that the Fed still says the natural level of interest rates -- the rate where the cost of money is "neither expansionary nor contractionary when the economy is operating at or near its potential ...still appear[s] to be low by historical standards," the minutes say. Committee members say "gradual increases in the federal funds rate over the next few years probably would be sufficient to return to a neutral policy stance," they add.

Translation: When rates go up, they're not going up much.

The second bullet point is that the minutes show clearly that the Fed thinks any Trump-inspired change in the economy will happen slowly enough for monetary policy to respond before inflation runs amok.

Here's the key paragraph:

Members agreed that there was heightened uncertainty about possible changes in fiscal and other economic policies as well as their effects. However, members also agreed that near-term risks to the economic outlook appeared roughly balanced. Some members saw, with gradual adjustments of the stance of monetary policy, only modest risk of a scenario in which an undershooting of the longer-run normal rate of unemployment would create a sharp acceleration in prices. These members observed that inflation continued to run below the Committee's 2% objective and that wage gains had been subdued, and they expressed the view that inflation was likely to rise gradually, giving monetary policy time to respond, if necessary. Several members noted that if the labor market appeared to be tightening significantly more than expected, it might become necessary to adjust the Committee's communications about the expected path of the federal funds rate, consistent with the possibility that a less gradual pace of increases could become appropriate.

Translation: Inflation is so low, and wages are picking up slowly enough that even if Trump causes more inflation than the Fed expects, the central bank will have time to intervene before the economy overheats.

That last part is probably the most striking new feature of the Fed's communication today. For good or ill, they are telling the market that "we've got this.'' They think.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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