record yields were reported for corn and soybeans, but farm income was being reduced by lower crop prices. Measures of farmland values were still rising, but anecdotal reports suggested softening in some areas.
Fiscal policy continued to restrain economic growth. However, participants generally judged that the extent of the restraint may have begun to diminish as the effects of the payroll tax increases earlier in the year seem to have waned, and the drag on real activity from restrictive fiscal policies was expected to decline further going forward. Moreover, a number of participants observed that the prospect that the Congress would shortly reach an accord on the budget seemed to be reducing uncertainty and lowering the risks that might be associated with a disruptive political impasse.
Committee participants generally viewed the increases in nonfarm payroll employment of more than 200,000 per month in October and November and the decline in the unemployment rate to 7 percent as encouraging signs of ongoing improvement in labor market conditions. Several cited other indicators of progress in the labor market, such as the decline in new claims for unemployment insurance, the uptrend in quits, or the rise in the number of small businesses reporting job openings that were hard to fill. Participants exchanged views on the extent to which the decrease in labor force participation over recent years represented cyclical weakness in the labor market that was not adequately captured by the unemployment rate. Some participants cited research that found that demographic and other structural factors, particularly rising retirements by older workers, accounted for much of the recent decline in participation. However, several others continued to see important elements of cyclical weakness in the low labor force participation rate and cited other indicators of considerable slack in the labor market, including the still-high levels of long-duration unemployment and of workers employed part time for economic reasons and the still-depressed ratio of employment to population for workers ages 25 to 54. In addition, although a couple of participants had heard reports of labor shortages, particularly for workers with specialized skills, most measures of wages had not accelerated. A few participants noted the risk that the persistent weakness in labor force participation and low rates of productivity growth might indicate lasting structural economic damage from the financial crisis and ensuing recession.
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Inflation continued to run noticeably below the Committee’s longer-run objective of 2 percent, but participants anticipated that it would move back toward 2 percent over time as the economic recovery strengthened and longer-run inflation expectations remained steady. Several participants suggested that some of the factors that had held down inflation recently, such as the slowing in price increases for medical care and banking services, were likely to prove transitory. Some participants suggested that inflation, while low, was unlikely to slow further, pointing to core, trimmed mean, or sticky-price inflation measures as indicative of fairly steady underlying price trends; most measures of wage gains were also steady. Nonetheless, many participants expressed concern about the deceleration in consumer prices over the past year, and a couple pointed out that a number of other advanced economies were also experiencing very low inflation. Among the costs of very low or declining inflation that were cited were its effects in raising real interest rates and debt burdens. A few participants raised the possibility that recent declines in inflation might suggest that the economic recovery was not as strong as some thought.
Domestic financial markets were influenced importantly over the intermeeting period by Federal Reserve communications and by economic data that were generally better than market participants expected. These factors apparently led market participants to raise the odds they assigned to a reduction in the pace of asset purchases at the December meeting, and to leave roughly unchanged their expectations for the timing of the first increase in the target federal funds rate. A number of participants noted that current market expectations were reasonably well aligned with the Committee’s recent policy communications.
Participants also reviewed indicators of financial vulnerabilities that could pose risks to financial stability and the broader economy. These indicators generally suggested that such risks were moderate, in part because of the reduction in leverage and maturity transformation that has occurred in the financial sector since the onset of the financial crisis. In their discussion of potential risks, several participants commented on the rise in forward price-to-earnings ratios for some small-cap stocks, the increased level of equity repurchases, or the rise in margin credit. One pointed to the increase in issuance of leveraged loans this year and the apparent decline in the average quality of such loans. A couple of participants offered views on the role of financial stability in monetary policy decisionmaking more broadly. One proposed that the Committee analyze more explicitly the potential consequences of specific risks to the financial system for its dual-mandate objectives and take account of the possible effects of monetary policy on such risks in its assessment of appropriate policy. Another suggested that the importance of financial stability considerations in the Committee’s deliberations would likely increase over time as progress is made toward the Committee’s objectives, and that such considerations should be incorporated into forward guidance for the federal funds rate and asset purchases.
In their discussion of the appropriate path for monetary policy, participants considered whether the cumulative improvement in labor market conditions since the asset purchase