he FOMC’s November meeting might have been one of the most important meetings in a long time.
At 2:00 PM EST, we saw a statement that was believed to be dovish by most and confirmed by market moves. It said that the FOMC expects that “ongoing increases in the target rate will be appropriate,” which even the most dovish observers would agree, but added that “in determining the pace of future increases in the target range, the Committee will take into account the cumulative tightening of monetary policy, the lags with which monetary policy affects economic activity and inflation, and economic and financial developments.”
Thirty minutes later at the press conference, Chair Powell struck a hawkish tone, focusing on the least dovish parts of the statement and provided more hawkish commentary, leading the markets to react accordingly.
He mentioned that rates would be higher for longer: “The incoming data since our last meeting suggest the terminal rate of Fed Funds will be higher than previously expected, and we will stay the course until the job is done.” There is no pause in sight: “It’s very premature to think about a pause in our interest rate hiking cycle.” And lastly, he would rather do too much than too little: “Prudent risk management suggests the risks of doing too little are much higher than doing too much. If we were to over-tighten, we could use our tools later on to support the economy. Instead, if we did too little, we would risk inflation getting entrenched and that’s a much greater risk for our mandate.”
In sum, we saw an intentional dovish shift in the language of the statement, followed by a much more hawkish message at the press conference. We have two main takeaways.
First, we might be seeing the first signs of a fracture happening within the FOMC. That is exactly what happened in the 1970s and it was the main reason that led Volcker to shift to a monetarist approach of targeting monetary aggregates, even though he was not a monetarist. Volcker was an incredible central banker not just because of his technical expertise, but also because he was a savvy politician. He understood that he could not bring all members of the FOMC along to raise rates as much as was necessary to curb inflation. In changing the way the Fed did monetary policy, he saw a way to unburden the FOMC members from this responsibility. He understood that it would otherwise be politically impossible to keep raising rates.
Secondly, Powell changed the shape of the distribution of potential rates outcomes with his comment on “prudent risk management.” If the FOMC follows Powell’s lead, we could see rates going higher for longer, but only at much smaller increments. That will be the compromise. With eight meetings in 2023, we are talking about a potential hawkish rate increase of 200-250bps for the full year (compared with 425-450 in 2022). On the other hand, if they find themselves to have overtightened, they will have roughly 500bps or more to cut, depending on when that happens. The risk of maintaining a paying rates position at the short end of the curve, which was probably one of the best risk-adjusted trades of the year, materially increased.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens opens the book with a sentence that has become famous: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity (…)” This meeting might have marked the end of the golden age of monetary policy where consensus was the norm and developed markets’ central banks did not have to struggle with their dual mandate or politics.