That progress gave the Fed confidence that it could close the door on its two-year, trillion-dollar, bond-buying program without jeopardizing the recovery’s momentum.
“There has been a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market,” the statement read. Officials “see sufficient underlying strength in the broader economy to support ongoing progress toward maximum employment in a context of price stability.”
Markets dipped on the announcement Wednesday afternoon, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Standard & Poor's index both down about 0.3 percent.
The end of the Fed’s bond-buying program, known as quantitative easing, will likely heighten scrutiny over when the central bank will take its next step in scaling back its support for the economy: raising its target for interest rates.
The Fed slashed the target to zero during the depths of the financial crisis, and it has remained there ever since. Officials made no change Wednesday to the language guiding their decision for when they will reverse course, maintaining that a “considerable time” will pass before rates rise.
The statement also reiterated that any move would depend on the health of the economy. Though several Fed officials have indicated they expect to raise the target for interest rates in the middle of next year, a pickup in the recovery could encourage them to move more quickly. On the other hand, if growth disappoints, the Fed could keep rates at zero for longer.
A clearer picture of the recovery’s direction should emerge over the next few days. On Thursday, the government is slated to release its first estimate of economic growth in the third quarter, which analysts expect will clock in at a 3 percent annual rate. Next week, the Labor Department will release its monthly tally of hiring and unemployment.
Changing its target for short-term interest rates is the Fed’s most powerful tool for shaping the economy. But once rates hit zero in 2008, the central bank was forced to rely on other measures to continue stimulating the economy. Chief among them was the bond-buying program, in which the Fed purchased Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities to help bring down long-term interest rates – a move it hoped would encourage businesses and consumers to borrow and spend money, spurring economic growth.
The Fed has conducted three rounds of purchases over the past six years, each more aggressive than the last. In the most recent effort, launched in fall 2012, the central bank promised to keep buying bonds until it was convinced the job market was on the road to recovery.
On Wednesday, the Fed voted to conclude the program 9-1. Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota dissented, arguing that the Fed should continue purchasing bonds and keep interest rates low until inflation picks up. In its statement, the central bank acknowledged that low energy prices will likely keep a lid on prices in the short term but expressed confidence that inflation eventually would return to its target of 2 percent.
The Fed’s balance sheet has risen to more than $4 trillion since it began the bond purchases in 2008. The central bank said Wednesday that it plans to maintain the size of its holdings and replace securities as they mature, even though it will no longer add to that amount.
The central bank’s easy-money stance -- and quantitative easing, in particular -- have come under fire from critics who worry the policies could be breeding future financial instability and distorting markets. Economists generally agree that the bond purchases have supported the recovery. But they also point out that the true costs of the program won’t be known until the Fed begins shrinking its balance sheet, a task it is not expected to tackle until well into the future.
“It’s not just measuring the benefits. It’s still important to see what the ultimate costs are going to be,” said Elizabeth Duke, a former member of the Fed’s board of governors. “You can’t really judge those until it’s completely unwound.”