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Aug. 20, 2022, 11:10 a.m. EDT

Stop misreading the Fed: It’s not getting cold feet about wrestling inflation to the ground

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By Rex Nutting

The Federal Reserve isn’t as mysterious as it’s made out to be. It’s not hiding coded messages in its communications. It’s not using obscure metaphors that seem to say one thing but actually mean the opposite. There’s no secret chord that only the truly devout can hear.

When Fed policy makers said, as they did in the summary minutes of their July 26-27 meeting, that they are all “highly attentive to inflation risks,” they meant it. When they said that “there was little evidence to date that inflation pressures were subsiding,” they meant it. When they said that inflation “would likely stay uncomfortably high for some time,” they meant it.

Read more coverage: Federal Reserve officials back moving interest rates higher to slow the economy, minutes show

Resolutely hawkish

And above all, they meant it when they unanimously agreed that the risk of persistently high inflation made it necessary to raise the federal funds /zigman2/quotes/210002368/delayed FF00 +0.0053% target range by 0.75 percentage points to 2.25% to 2.50% last month, and that they anticipated that “ongoing increases in the target range would be appropriate.”

The Fed remains resolutely hawkish (biased toward higher interest rates). There was no hidden, secret dovish message in the July 26-27 minutes. But some people found one any way.

As MarketWatch’s Isabel Wang reported Thursday, many participants in the stock market misread the minutes initially on Wednesday, thinking that the Fed was secretly getting cold feet and was hinting at a “dovish pivot.” But by Thursday’s trading session, the market seemed to have a handle on what the Fed was actually communicating.

One of the confusing things about the Fed is that it has adopted a “risk-management” approach to monetary policy. In practice, risk management means considering all the significant risks (even the improbable ones) and setting policy to maximize benefits and minimize the costs. This means the Fed doesn’t automatically set its policy to the likeliest outcomes, but to the riskiest outcomes.

Right now, every member of the Fed policy committee judges that persistently high inflation carries the most risk. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other risks to consider.

Breaking news: Fed’s Bullard says he is leaning toward backing 0.75 percentage point hike in September

Toothless Fed

The July 26-27 minutes mention two other significant risks. The first one is that the public won’t believe the Fed when it says its top priority is to kill inflation even if that means falling asset prices /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX -1.47% /zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime DJIA -1.14% and higher unemployment rates. If the public did come to believe that the Fed is toothless, it would start expecting much higher inflation in the future. And, according to theory, that would fuel even more inflation and make it even more difficult to get inflation bottled up in the 2% range.

The Fed’s fear is justified: The Fed has a reputation for cutting rates and printing money whenever the financial markets catch a little cold. Markets still believe in the Fed put , and the only thing that will persuade investors that the put is gone for good is for the Fed keep fighting the war against inflation regardless of bear market or recession.

This risk argues for a hawkish Fed.

Breaking news: Fed’s Kashkari says he doesn’t know if the central bank can bring inflation down without triggering a recession

The second risk cuts the other way. The minutes reported that “many” participants (which is taken to mean at least five but less than nine) mentioned the risk that the Fed might raise interest rates more than necessary to fight inflation. If that happened, the Fed would have smothered the economy needlessly, failed to achieve its goal of maximum employment, and put its political independence at risk.

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