Fed action unlikely amid mixed economic signals

The Federal Reserve is likely to stand pat when it gathers for a policymaking meeting Tuesday as the central bank confronts confusing signals about where the economy is heading.

As Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has acknowledged , the unemployment rate has come down more swiftly than he and other economists had anticipated. The job market appears to be healing faster as well, as demonstrated by last week’s sterling jobs report.

On the other hand, other indicators of economic growth have been far less bullish. Measures of business investment, consumption, spending and trade — which together drive the nation’s economic growth — don’t appear to be increasing fast enough to justify the amount of hiring companies are doing, economists say. Nor are wages rising significantly.

The dynamic has left the Fed guessing whether its projections for the next few years — sluggish growth combined with a very gradual decline in unemployment — are excessively pessimistic. Or, perhaps, the Fed’s assessment is correct and the recent bright spots will prove fleeting.

In the first few weeks of the year, Bernanke was a highly cautious voice, suggesting that the Fed may take new action to try to reduce unemployment even more. Lately he has been more open to the possibility that the recovery might prove more durable.

“In light of the somewhat different signals received recently from the labor market than from indicators of final demand and production,” Bernanke said in congressional testimony two weeks ago, “. . . it will be especially important to evaluate incoming information to assess the underlying pace of economic recovery.”

On Friday, the Labor Department reported that the economy added 227,000 jobs in February while the unemployment rate remained at 8.3 percent — largely because more people started looking for work.

Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at J.P. Morgan Chase, said in a report that the job news shut the door to new action by the Fed on Tuesday and made any type of stimulus action less likely at the next meeting in April.

“While the growth and productivity slowdown is certainly a concern, Fed policymakers probably take some modest degree of comfort in seeing a rise in the employment-to-population ratio, a trend decline in unemployment, and reasonably steady job growth,” Feroli wrote.

In its last policy meeting in January, the Fed took a significant step to support the markets when it announced it would keep interest rates ultra-low through the end of 2014, a year and a half longer than anticipated. That promise, Fed officials hope, will give businesses the confidence to borrow money, invest and hire.

The reason the Fed is not taking more dramatic action now — even though unemployment remains far above the 5.5 percent to 6 percent it deems normal — is the worry that flooding the economy with money during an economic recovery could create a swell of demand and, consequently, cause prices to rise too fast.

A number of Fed policymakers — and many Republicans in Congress — warn that this threat of inflation is a reason for the Fed to move with great caution in considering any additional steps.

But by no means is additional action off the table — especially if the recovery stalls, a risk that has increased with the spike in gasoline prices.

If it does act, the Fed is likely to take one of three routes, according to analysts. The most dramatic would be outright purchases of Treasury bonds or, more likely, mortgage bonds — which could inject more life into the housing market by lowering mortgage rates even further.

This dramatic option raises the ire of those concerned about the threat of inflation, so the Fed may choose a second path that will have much of the same impact on the economy while perhaps protecting against inflation. The Wall Street Journal first reported the possibility of this option.

Known as “sterilization,” this option would involve the Fed purchasing Treasury bonds or mortgage bonds, which represent loans lasting up to 30 years. Those purchases, as is customary, would flood the financial system with more money.

But then the Fed would borrow that money back from banks in extremely short-term transactions. That would serve to lock up the money so it couldn’t be used to make new loans to businesses and consumers.

By buying long-term bonds, without increasing the overall amount of money available to be lent out, the Fed could put downward pressure on interest rates.

The third option would be to expand a policy currently in place known as the “twist.” That involves selling short-term Treasury bonds owed by the Fed and buying the same amount of long-term bonds, putting downward pressure on rates.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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