Politics & Money

Federal Reserve ready to maintain rate, minutes show

Central bankers unconcerned about record-low unemployment

Federal Reserve officials used to worry that if the U.S. unemployment rate dropped below 5% it would spark inflation, which would lead to higher borrowing costs, including mortgage rates. Now, they say the tightest labor market in 50 years could get even tighter without concern.

The jobless rate was 3.5% in November, matching the September measure that was the lowest since 1969. The rate for December comes out on Friday morning.

“Participants remarked that there were some indications that further strengthening in overall labor market conditions was possible without creating undesirable pressure on resources,” according to the minutes of the Fed’s Dec. 10 to 11 meeting, released on Friday.

The average annual U.S. salary for full-time workers rose to a record high of $69,181 in November, up 3.4% from a year earlier, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Adjusted for inflation, median household income in November was 7.5% higher than it was in 2007 start of the Great Recession.

Fed officials “discussed how maintaining the current stance of policy for a time could be helpful for cushioning the economy from the global developments that have been weighing on economic activity,” the minutes said.

The minutes showed policymakers worried about a steep slowdown in the U.S. manufacturing sector. The Institute for Supply Management said Friday that its index for factory activity fell in December to the lowest level in over a decade. It was the fifth consecutive month the gauge declined.

“Overall manufacturing production appeared likely to remain soft in coming months, reflecting generally weak readings on new orders from national and regional manufacturing surveys, declining domestic business investment, slow economic growth abroad, and a persistent drag from trade developments,” the Fed minutes said.

According to futures markets, 91% of investors are betting the Fed maintains its current stance at its next meeting, Jan. 28 and 29, according to CME Group’s FedWatch tool on Monday. That was down from 96% a week ago, a reading taken before the U.S. drone attack on Friday that killed Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top general.

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