Today, the Federal Reserve’s policy setting body decided to hold interest rates steady—a policy move that was predicted with near certainty by financial markets. Because this Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting was not a “live” one, that is Fed Chairman Powell did not follow it with a press conference, the only news comes from the press release. And the news there is basically no news at all—except for calling economic growth “strong” instead of “solid.”
But this slightly more bullish tone on economic growth is not license to ignore other potential issues in the economy.
One concern is escalating trade tensions. The increasing levels of protectionism emanating from the U.S. and reverberating across the globe could dampen the economic outlook. Powell, fortunately, is aware of the risks of higher trade barriers—but it remains debatable what precisely the Fed can or should do in light of mounting protectionism.
Another concern is the flattening yield curve, where yields on short-term Treasury bonds have been inching higher and closer to yields on long-term Treasury bonds. If short-term yields exceed long-term yields, we end up with a yield curve inversion. Yield curve inversions often portend a recession, as they indicate market uncertainty about short-term prospects. While the flattening has abated this month—and while some Fed watchers rightly point out that if the curve stays relatively flat without inverting, there is less reason to worry—the Fed should continue to monitor important feedback from the bond market.
But the real issue the FOMC ought to be focused on is the Fed’s operating framework. I discussed the FOMC’s tinkering with the mechanics of monetary policy last month, highlighting that the current operating system was an experiment that grew out of the financial crisis and that it remains a framework with which the Fed has little experience. Of course, my colleague George Selgin has been the leader on this issue, bringing much needed attention to the myriad problems the “leaky floor” system poses. When the minutes from this FOMC meeting are released in three weeks, we can only hope they reveal the members giving this topic its rightful due.
It’s all well and good for the FOMC to adjust its language in the wake of positive GDP figures, but the Fed still has a very large question to address. It’s past time that they begin to do so in earnest.