In another sign that the Federal Reserve's rate-setting committee could be on the verge of raising interest rates, newly released minutes showed wide agreement that labor and inflation gauges were pointing toward a December liftoff. Most members thought "conditions could well be met by the time of the next meeting."
Barring any disruptive economic or geopolitical shocks in the coming weeks, the U.S. could see interest rates rising for the first time since 2006.
The minutes, taken during the late October meeting of the Fed, elucidated the thinking behind the committee's decision to hold off raising rates that month. Even as they alerted markets to the increased possibility of a December hike, committee members elected to give the economy at least another two months before touching interest rates.
Since then, momentum for a December liftoff has been growing among Fed officials, strengthened in part by a strong jobs report and firm inflation data from October. "I am comfortable with moving off zero soon, conditioned on no marked deterioration in economic conditions," Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart said Thursday.
Still, a contingent of Fed officials were still seen leaning toward keeping rates at the stimulative near-zero levels they've held for the past seven years. Jobs reports still reflected slack in labor markets, they said, while "downside risks from abroad were still significant." The Fed said global market conditions had improved since the summer, when concerns over China's economy toughed off market volatility the world over. But worries linger.
And although the headline joblessness figure has fallen to 5 percent, inflation has not picked up as quickly as expected, and wage gains have been muted. Among dovish members like Chicago Fed President Charles Evans, those factors have been enough to keep the finger off the trigger of a rate hike, which would increase the cost of borrowing for consumers looking to buy homes and cars.
The Fed has been optimistic in large part due to consumer spending, which has shown healthy growth in recent months. The officials were "encouraged by the solid pace of consumption growth in the third quarter and generally expected consumer spending to rise moderately going forward,” the minutes read.
The next Fed meeting is scheduled to take place December 15-16.