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Fed notes job gains but will keep interest rates near zero

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The Federal Reserve stood pat on Tuesday, saying in a relatively upbeat statement that the job market has been more vibrant recently but that the economy is still likely to improve only gradually.

The Fed did not take any new policy action, reaffirming its plan to keep interest rates extraordinary low through at least late 2014.

After a one-day policymaking meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee — its second gathering of the year — the central bank noted that the unemployment rate had declined “notably but remains elevated.” Fed officials also said that the rising cost of oil and gas will contribute to higher inflation but the effect probably would be temporary.

“The Committee expects moderate economic growth over coming quarters and consequently anticipates that the unemployment rate will decline gradually,” the Fed said.

The Fed said that strains in global financial markets have eased but still “pose significant downside risks to the economic outlook.” The Fed also expressed worry about the “depressed” housing market.

The actions come as the central bank faces confusing signals about the pace of the economy. As Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has acknowledged, the unemployment rate has come down more swiftly than he and other economists had anticipated.

But other ­indicators of economic growth do not appear to be improving fast enough to justify the amount of hiring that 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 overly pessimistic.

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

Bernanke said in congressional testimony two weeks ago: “In light of the somewhat different signals received recently from the labor market than from indicators of final demand and production ... 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.

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 5.2 percent to 6 percent that officials deem 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 means the Fed will be very cautious when considering any additional steps.

But by no means is additional action off the table — especially if the recovery stalls. If it does act, the Fed is likely to take one of three routes, according to analysts.

The most significant 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 might 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.

The action known as “sterilization” would involve the Fed purchasing Treasury bonds or mortgage bonds, which represent loans lasting up to 30 years. Those purchases 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 current policy 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.

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