WASHINGTON – Federal Reserve officials agreed at their last meeting that if the economy continued to improve, they could start reducing their monthly bond purchases as soon as next month and bring them to an end by the middle of 2022.
The discussion was revealed in the minutes of the Fed’s Sept. 21-22 meeting, released Wednesday. Fed officials also said that the reduction, or tapering, of bond purchases could begin in the middle of November or December. The 18 Fed policymakers meet eight times a year.
The Fed is widely expected to announce the tapering at its next meeting, to be held Nov. 2-3. The announcement is likely to occur before the tapering actually begins. If so, such a move would mark the Fed's first step back from the extraordinary efforts it has made to stimulate the economy in the wake of the pandemic.
“Participants generally assessed that, provided that the economic recovery remained broadly on track, a gradual tapering process that concluded around the middle of next year would likely be appropriate,” the minutes said.
Last December, the Fed said that it would buy $120 billion a month in bonds until the economy had made “substantial progress” toward its goals of maximum employment and inflation that averages 2% over time. The bond purchases are intended to spur more borrowing and spending by keeping longer-term interest rates low. The Fed has also pegged its short-term benchmark rate at nearly zero.
At a news conference following the September meeting, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said that such progress had been made with inflation and the test was “all but met” when it came to employment.
“If the economy continues to progress broadly in line with expectations,” Powell said, “I think we can easily move ahead at the next meeting."
Earlier Wednesday, the government said consumer prices rose 5.4% in September compared with a year ago, matching a 13-year high that was also reached in June and July. The ongoing price gains have raised pressure on the Fed to dial-back its low-interest rate policies.
According to the minutes, Fed policymakers said that the delta wave of COVID-19 cases around the world “were exacerbating or prolonging” the supply chain bottlenecks that have forced many auto plants to shut down and pushed up prices for furniture, televisions, shoes, and other imported goods.
Several policymakers, which include the presidents of the Fed’s 12 regional banks, said businesses in their districts “generally did not expect these bottlenecks to be fully resolved until sometime next year or even later.”
Powell has long described the jump in inflation this year as transitory, though some Fed officials are backing away from the term as price increases have persisted. Powell has said that by transitory, he means that price gains this year are mostly one-time responses to the disruptions of the pandemic, and don't mark the start of an upward spiral in inflation.
The minutes said that Fed policymakers “assessed that supply constraints in product and labor markets were larger and likely to be longer lasting than previously anticipated.”
Hiring has also slowed sharply in the past two months, with the government reporting Friday that just 194,000 jobs were added in September, far below the roughly 1 million gained in both June and July.
Still, Powell said at the September news conference that he wouldn't need to see a “super great” jobs report that month to support tapering at the November meeting. He said that the cumulative progress that has been made — with more than 17 million of the 22 million jobs lost to the pandemic having been recovered — would likely be enough.
Fed officials also emphasized that the beginning of the tapering of its bond purchases would be a separate decision from that of raising its short-term interest rate, which would require “a different, and more stringent, test.” Powell has said that the goals of maximum employment and inflation at 2% over time would actually have to be met before rate hikes would be warranted.
At their last meeting, Fed officials signaled that they may first raise rates late next year.