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A Comparison of Fed "Tightening" Episodes since the 1980s

FRB of St. Louis 2020.02.28
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Deciding to undertake a series of tightening actions present unique challenges for Federal Reserve policymakers. These challenges are both political and economic. Using a variety of economic and financial market metrics, this article examines how the economy and financial markets evolved in response to the five tightening episodes enacted by the FOMC since 1983. The primary aim is to compare the most-recent episode, from December 2015 to December 2018, with the previous four episodes. The findings in this article indicate that the current episode bears some resemblance to previous Fed tightening episodes, but also differs in several key dimensions. For example, in the first four episodes, the data show the FOMC was generally tightening into a strengthening economy with building price pressures. In contrast, in the fifth episode the FOMC began its tightening regime during a deceleration in economic activity and with headline and core inflation remaining well below the FOMC’s 2 percent inflation target. Moreover, both short- and long-term inflation expectations were drifting lower. These developments helped explain why there was a one-year gap between the first and second increases in the federal funds target rate in the most-recent episode. Another key difference is that in three of the first four episodes, the FOMC continued to tighten after the yield curve inverted; a recession then followed shortly thereafter. However, in the final episode, the FOMC ended its tightening policy about eight months before the yield curve inverted. It remains to be seen if a recession follows this inversion.

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