Sunday, October 16, 2011

Fed minutes: 2 policy makers saw need for bolder steps

WASHINGTON - Federal Reserve policy makers considered a third round of bond purchases at their last meeting, and at least two members said the weakening economy might require it, according to minutes of the meeting released Wednesday.

In the end, the Fed stopped short of expanding its portfolio of investments. Instead, it opted to shift $400 billion of its investments to try to lower long-term interest rates.

The minutes of the Sept. 20-21 meeting showed the two officials, who were not identified, were willing to go along with the Fed's policy action because policy makers did not rule out taking further steps.

However, the minutes also reflected sharp divisions at the Fed over how it should support an economy that is struggling to grow and create jobs.

Some members believe the central bank should take bolder steps to boost growth because the unemployment rate has been stuck at about 9 percent for more than two years. But some have argued that the central bank has done all it can and that further action could increase the risk of inflation.

Three members of the committee, all regional bank presidents, dissented from the Fed's decision to shift its bond holdings. It was the second straight meeting that the Fed's policy decision received three dissents. That marked the highest level of dissent at the Fed in nearly 20 years.

In the statement released after the September meeting, the central bank offered a bleak economic outlook, saying it sees "significant downside risks," including volatility in overseas markets.

Chairman Ben Bernanke has acknowledged that the bond rebalancing would not be a "game-changer." During testimony before Congress last week, he said the move could lower long-term interest rates by about one-fifth of a percentage point.

But Bernanke also said the economic recovery "is close to faltering." He said the Fed is prepared to take further steps to support it.

In September, employers added 103,000 net jobs. Although that was enough to ease recession fears, it was well below what's needed to lower the unemployment rate, which stayed at 9.1 percent for the third straight month.

It takes about 125,000 jobs a month just to keep up with population growth.

Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of economic activity. Without more jobs and higher pay increases, consumers are likely to keep spending cautiously. Many have already cut back on spending in the face of steeper food and gas prices.

Lower rates could help in a number of ways. Homeowners could refinance their mortgages at lower rates, leaving them more money to spend or pay down debt. Businesses could expand or invest at lower costs, allowing some to hire more workers.

But economists doubt the Fed's latest move will do much because interest rates are already at historic lows. Last week, Freddie Mac said the average rate on the 30-year mortgage fell below 4 percent for the first time ever, to 3.94 percent.

In addition to shuffling its portfolio, the Fed has said it plans to keep short-term rates at record lows until at least mid-2013, assuming the economy remains weak.

Other Fed officials are pushing for the central bank to do more. Some support a third round of bond buying that would expand the size of the Fed's already record holdings of Treasury securities.

Charles Evans, president of the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank, has argued for a change in the Fed's guidance that would link any pledge to keep rates at low levels until unemployment falls below 7.5 percent.

by Martin Crutsinger Associated Press Oct. 13, 2011 12:00 AM

Fed minutes: 2 policy makers saw need for bolder steps

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