Federal Reserve officials are preparing to slow the central bank’s large purchases of government-backed bonds, the first step toward a more normal monetary policy setting as the economy heals from the pandemic — but when they met last month, they remained starkly divided over just when the pullback should happen.
Minutes from the central bank’s July 27-28 gathering showed that Fed officials generally thought they would soon meet their standard for slowing bond purchases, which they had previously established as “substantial further progress” toward the central bank’s maximum employment and inflation goals.
“Most” of the officials “judged that the standard set out in the committee’s guidance regarding asset purchases could be reached this year,” the release showed. But precisely when to begin remained a matter of active debate.
Some officials wanted to slow bond purchases soon to guard against the risk of higher inflation, and “a few” were worried that continued big purchases could lead to financial system risks, the account of the meeting released Wednesday showed.
But a few others argued for a slower process, stressing that rising Delta variant coronavirus cases posed risks to the economic outlook, and several worried that in coming years inflation — though high today — could dip to uncomfortably low levels again. Several of the officials also pointed to big lingering uncertainties, like when workers would return to jobs.
The snapshot of Federal Open Market Committee deliberations comes ahead of the central bank’s most closely watched annual gathering, an economic symposium in Jackson Hole in Wyoming that will take place next week. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed’s chair, will deliver a speech at the event, and many investors expect he could provide hints or details about the central bank’s coming policy move.
Mr. Powell and his colleagues are working against a complicated backdrop as the economy grows rapidly and as inflation and asset prices pop, but the labor market recovery remains incomplete, with nearly 7 million jobs still missing compared with employment levels at the start of the pandemic.
The Fed is still holding interest rates near zero and plans to do so until the labor market is more fully healed, which means monetary policy will continue to support the economy even once the bond buying begins to slow. Fed officials have suggested that they may favor raising interest rates by late 2022 or — more popularly — 2023.
Some officials who are eager to start to slow bond purchases soon have emphasized that moving early and quickly would allow the Fed to be more flexible when it comes to raising borrowing costs. The Fed is buying $120 billion in Treasury and mortgage-backed debt each month, and officials have said they would prefer to bring that policy to a close before lifting the federal funds rate.
The debate over timing was still unresolved in July.
“Various participants commented that economic and financial conditions would likely warrant a reduction in coming months,” the minutes released on Wednesday said. “Several others indicated, however, that a reduction in the pace of asset purchases was more likely to become appropriate early next year.”
How quickly the slowdown in buying will happen was also up for discussion, and participants expressed “a range of views on the appropriate pace of tapering asset purchases.”
The last Fed meeting came before the Labor Department reported that hiring in July was strong, creating a sunnier snapshot of the job market’s recovery.
“Since the July F.O.M.C. meeting, the probability of a September announcement and an October or November start date to tapering those purchases has increased considerably, in our view,” Bob Miller, the head of fundamental fixed income in the Americas for BlackRock, wrote following the release.
But the minutes also came before infections from the Delta variant of the coronavirus surged so drastically.
“The uncertainty created by Delta, as well as the uncertainty over the post-summer labor market and the path of inflation, all reinforce our view that a tapering announcement is not imminent,” Ian Shepherdson, the chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in a research note. “We think it will come in November, and even that is contingent on the Delta wave clearly subsiding before then.”
The Fed meets next on Sept. 21-22.