……median respondents to the Open Market Desk's Survey of Primary Dealers marked down projections for gross domestic product (GDP) growth and revised up projections for inflation this year.
……market participants noted policymaker communications suggesting that tapering of asset purchases could begin this year and end by mid-2022. Around half of respondents to the Desk's surveys of primary dealers and market participants viewed December as the most likely timing of the first reduction in the net pace of purchases, although respondents also attached significant probability to the first reduction coming in November. Median expectations for the pace of net purchases were consistent with a gradual tapering of net purchases being completed in July of next year, about one to two months earlier than in the previous surveys. Expectations for the target federal funds rate based on survey responses and interest rate futures moved up slightly since the previous meeting.
Investors remained focused on other vulnerabilities in emerging markets, and concerns had grown recently about the possible implications of developments in China.
Market participants were attentive over the period to negotiations on the debt limit. Yields on Treasury bills maturing in mid-October to mid-November had become modestly elevated as investors reduced exposures to securities that could be at risk for delayed payments.
The information available at the time of the September 21–22 meeting suggested that U.S. real GDP was increasing in the third quarter at a slower pace than in the second quarter of the year. The pace of improvement in labor market conditions had remained very rapid in July but slowed sharply in August. Consumer price inflation in June and July—as measured by the 12 month percentage change in the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index was elevated.
Total nonfarm payroll employment increased sharply in July but rose much less rapidly in August, with job gains in the leisure and hospitality sector slowing to zero. In addition, state and local government employment was reported to have fallen in August, though abnormal seasonal swings had likely distorted recent readings for this sector. As of August, total payroll employment had retraced three-fourths of the losses seen at the onset of the pandemic. The unemployment rate had declined from 5.9 percent in June to 5.2 percent in August; although the unemployment rates for African Americans and Hispanics had also declined, on net, over this period, both rates remained well above the national average. The labor force participation rate edged up, on net, and the employment-to-population (EPOP) ratio rose further in July and August. Private-sector job openings, as measured by the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, increased further in July and continued to suggest that labor demand was extraordinarily high. Initial claims for regular state unemployment insurance remained near the pandemic-period low that had been reached in early September but were still somewhat elevated relative to pre-pandemic levels. Weekly estimates of private-sector payrolls constructed by the Board's staff using data provided by the payroll processor ADP that were available through early September pointed to a modest pickup in the pace of private employment gains relative to August.
Average hourly earnings for all employees rose strongly in July and August, with gains that were widespread across industries. Recent monthly increases in average hourly earnings appeared to reflect a combination of continued strong labor demand and increased difficulties in hiring. A staff measure of the 12-month change in the median wage derived from the ADP data had also pointed to strong wage growth, with a pace in August that was well above the growth rates seen before the pandemic. By contrast, the Wage Growth Tracker measure constructed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta had not shown a similar pickup. The employment cost index of hourly compensation in the private sector, which also includes benefit costs, rose at an annual rate of 3.6 percent over the 6 months ending in June, 1 percentage point faster than the 12‑month change posted in December 2020.
Inflation, as measured by either the PCE price index or the consumer price index (CPI), had been boosted by a surge in demand as the economy reopened further, along with the effects of production bottlenecks and supply constraints. Total PCE price inflation was 4.2 percent over the 12 months ending in July, and core PCE price inflation, which excludes changes in consumer energy prices and many consumer food prices, was 3.6 percent over the 12 months ending in July. In contrast, the trimmed mean measure of 12‑month PCE inflation constructed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas was 2.0 percent in July. In August, the 12-month change in the CPI was 5.3 percent, while the core CPI rose 4.0 percent over the same period. In the third quarter of 2021, the staff's common inflation expectations index, which combines information from many indicators of inflation expectations and inflation compensation, was little changed relative to the second quarter and was near its average over the decade before the pandemic.
Although real PCE declined in July, the components of retail sales used to estimate PCE rose strongly in August, returning to levels seen in the spring. However, concerns about the course of the pandemic appeared to be weighing on consumer services spending, as available indicators pointed to a slowing in demand for services sensitive to social distancing. In addition, measures of consumer confidence had moved lower in August. Demand for housing appeared to have remained very strong, but incoming data suggested that materials shortages and a lack of developed lots for construction were restraining residential building activity.
Available indicators suggested that growth in business fixed investment was slowing somewhat in the third quarter as supply bottlenecks—particularly for motor vehicles—weighed on business equipment spending.
Manufacturing output rose strongly in July and ticked up further in August. In August, activity in the oil and gas sector and production of petrochemicals had been held down by shutdowns related to Hurricane Ida. Supply chain issues faced by a number of other industries also continued to be a drag on overall factory output.
Total real government purchases appeared to be increasing in the third quarter after having moved lower in the second quarter. Available data suggested that federal nondefense purchases were declining sharply in the third quarter but that robust gains in real state and local purchases were offsetting this decline.
The U.S. international trade deficit remained high in July. After rising in June, real goods imports fell back in July, held down by a sizable decline in consumer goods imports, but the levels of consumer and total goods imports remained well above pre-COVID-19 levels. Real goods exports edged up in July and were close to pre-pandemic levels. Bottlenecks in the global semiconductor industry continued to weigh on exports and imports of automotive products, and shipping congestion continued to restrain trade overall. Exports and imports of services rose again in July, but they remained low relative to pre-pandemic levels, largely because international travel was still depressed.
In the advanced foreign economies (AFEs), where high vaccination rates had increased resilience to COVID-19 outbreaks, incoming data were consistent with economic growth in the third quarter at a slightly faster pace than in the second quarter. With the economic reopening under way, purchasing managers indexes for both manufacturing and services remained strong in Europe and Canada. Conversely, in emerging market economies (EMEs)—especially in Southeast Asia, where vaccination rates were lower—a global resurgence in COVID-19 infections due to the Delta variant led to renewals of public health restrictions. These restrictions weakened retail sales and contributed to labor shortages and transportation congestion, disrupting global supply chains. Inflation abroad was elevated, reflecting reversals of price declines early in the pandemic, past increases in energy and commodity prices, upward pressures from supply bottlenecks, and past exchange rate depreciations in some EMEs.
On September 20, stock market prices fell notably and speculative-grade yield spreads widened amid rising concerns about the creditworthiness of a Chinese property developer, but these moves were mostly reversed during the following day, particularly in the stock market.
Excluding PPP loans, C&I loan balances were estimated to have been largely unchanged between June and July.
Survey-based indicators suggest small business owners, especially from COVID-sensitive sectors that include lodging and food services, arts, entertainment and recreation, and educational services, became more pessimistic about their financial prospects, largely because of a worsening of near-term expectations for sales and general business conditions. Small business loan originations were above pre-pandemic levels in June and July, but increased concerns about the Delta variant depressed loan demand in August.
Some participants noted that the increase in labor force participation that they had expected had not yet materialized in the wake of the reopening of schools and the expiration of the extended unemployment benefits, and that this likely reflected in part concerns about the resurgence of the virus, childcare challenges, and the uncertainties generated by ongoing disruptions to in-person schooling.
Participants expected the labor market to continue to improve in coming months. Several participants indicated that a rise in the labor force participation rate might lag the improvements in other indicators such as the unemployment rate—a pattern consistent with past business cycle recoveries. Participants expressed a range of views regarding the extent to which they expected the labor force participation rate and the EPOP ratio would move back to their pre-pandemic levels. Various participants suggested that a complete return to pre-pandemic conditions was unlikely, as the pandemic had prompted reductions in the workforce that were likely to persist, including a large number of retirements and other departures from the labor force. A number of others, however, assessed that once the COVID-related concerns that were currently weighing on labor force participation passed, the participation rate and the EPOP ratio could return to, or even exceed, the pre-pandemic levels. Some participants remarked that the labor market recovery continued to be uneven across demographic and income groups and across sectors, with the recovery being particularly slow for women with young children and people with lower incomes.
Participants noted that their District contacts had broadly reported having difficulty hiring workers. The labor shortages were causing firms to reduce hours and scale back production while also leading employers to provide incentives to attract and retain workers, including wage increases and signing and retention bonuses. The rate of nominal wage growth had been robust in recent data; for example, average hourly earnings were up 4.9 percent at an annualized rate over the past six months.
In their discussion of inflation, participants observed that the inflation rate was elevated, and they expected that it would likely remain so in coming months before moderating. Participants marked up their inflation projections, as they assessed that supply constraints in product and labor markets were larger and likely to be longer lasting than previously anticipated. Some participants expressed concerns that elevated rates of inflation could feed through into longer-term inflation expectations of households and businesses or saw recent inflation data as suggestive of broader inflation pressures. Several other participants pointed out that the largest contributors to the recent elevated measures of inflation were a handful of COVID-related, pandemic-sensitive categories in which specific, identifiable bottlenecks were at play. This observation suggested that the upward pressure on prices would abate as the COVID-related demand and supply imbalances subsided. These participants noted that prices in some of those categories showed signs of stabilizing or even turned down of late. Many participants pointed out that the owners' equivalent rent component of price indexes should be monitored carefully, as rising home prices could lead to upward pressure on rents. A few participants noted that there was not yet evidence that robust wage growth was exerting upward pressure on prices to a significant degree, but also that the possibility merited close monitoring.