Fed firm on bond-buying policy as global economic risks intensify

March 15, 2011

As financial markets reeled around the globe, the Federal Reserve embraced continuity in its policies Tuesday, affirming its plans to keep interest rates low and to continue buying bonds to support the economy.

The Fed’s policy committee met against a backdrop of economic dangers from Japan, the Middle East and Europe. The U.S. economy, however, is “on a firmer footing,” Fed officials said after the meeting, and conditions in the job market “appear to be improving gradually.” Still, the officials also said they will be paying close attention to rising prices for oil and other commodities.

The new economic assessment is an upgrade from January’s meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee. Then, policymakers said only that the recovery was “continuing,” but too slowly to bring about a “significant improvement in labor market conditions.”

With unemployment still high, the Fed said Tuesday that it will keep to its near-zero target for short-term interest rates and continue buying $75 billion in Treasury bonds each month through June.

Fed officials acknowledged a risk of inflation as prices for oil and other commodities have spiked in recent months, including in the past several weeks after political turmoil erupted in Libya, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. But they said they expected the effects on prices to be transitory and will “pay close attention to the evolution of inflation and inflation expectations.”

Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, speaks during a Senate Banking Committee hearing on the central bank's semi-annual monetary policy report on March 1. The Fed said Tuesday it will keep interest rates low. (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG)

The Fed faces a contradiction in weighing monetary policy. The U.S. economy is improving, according to a wide range of data, which could give the Fed room to back away from some of its extraordinary efforts to boost growth.

Yet the rest of the world is facing profoundly challenging situations that could undermine confidence in the global recovery. Japan’s economy is near collapse as the nation faces a possible nuclear catastrophe in the wake of Friday’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. The European debt crisis is at risk of flaring up again. And Middle East unrest is already driving higher fuel prices.

The answer for the Federal Reserve, at least at Tuesday’s meeting, was to stand pat, watch and gather information. The Middle East situation was mentioned only obliquely in the policy statement, and there was no mention of Japan or Europe.

The Fed’s decision was unanimous, and for the second straight meeting no policymakers dissented.

Kevin Warsh, a Fed governor who is leaving the central bank at the end of the month, did not participate in the meeting, as is the Fed’s normal practice for a departing official.

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