WASHINGTON – The economy and job creation have strengthened enough for the Federal Reserve to end its $600 billion Treasury bond-buying program in June as planned, the Fed signaled Wednesday.
Ending a two-day meeting, the Fed made no changes to the program. The decision was unanimous. The bond purchases were intended to lower loan rates, encouraging spending and boost stock prices. But critics worried that the purchases would feed inflation.
The Fed downplayed inflation risks. It acknowledged a spike in oil prices, but concluded that the pickup in inflation will be temporary.
As it winds down its economic support programs, the Fed is shifting its focus on when and how it should start boosting interest rates to prevent inflation from getting out of control. Economists think the Fed will start raising rates later this year or early next year. Higher rates would reduce borrowing and spending and make companies less inclined to boost prices.
The Fed offered a mostly upbeat assessment on the economy. It said that the economic recovery is proceeding at a "moderate pace" and hiring is improving gradually. Consumers and businesses also are spending enough to support the recovery, the Fed said.
But the Fed's statement also pointed to weak spots in the economy. It noted that the housing market remains "depressed."
To nurture the recovery, the Fed also kept a pledge to hold its key interest rate at a record low near zero for an "extended period." The Fed has kept rates at ultra-low levels since December 2008.
Even though the bond-buying program is scheduled to end in June, the Fed said it's continuing a separate support program: It's reinvesting about $17 billion a month in proceeds from its portfolio of mortgage securities to buy Treasury debt. That should help keep rates low on mortgages and other consumer loans.
Since the Fed's bond-purchase program was announced in early November, the economy has gained strength. The unemployment rate has dropped to 8.8 percent, a full percentage point. Companies have added more than 200,000 jobs for two straight months — the first time that's happened in five years. And the S&P 500 index has surged 28 percent over the past eight months. Rates on 30-year mortgages have dropped and now stand at 4.80 percent.
Later Wednesday, Chairman Ben Bernanke is poised to make history by holding the first of three regularly scheduled news conferences this year. No chairman has done so in the 98-year history of the Fed, which has long been a secretive institution.
The news conferences are part of a long-standing effort by Bernanke to make the Fed, an independent government agency, more transparent. They also allow him to steer a debate about hiring, growth and inflation and to cast himself as open and accessible. He can have his voice heard above a vocal minority of Fed officials who are concerned about rising inflation.
Those officials, including the Fed regional chiefs in Philadelphia and Minneapolis, say the Fed may need to raise interest rates by the end of this year to fight inflation. The central bank has kept its benchmark interest rate near zero since December 2008.
Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, has argued that the Fed should consider halting the bond-buying program now, not in June.
The majority — including Bernanke, vice chairwoman Janet Yellen and William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — say interest rates should stay low longer, and the bond-buying program should run its course.
Bernanke has predicted that the jump in oil and food prices will cause only a brief increase in consumer inflation. Excluding those prices, which tend to fluctuate, inflation is still low, he has argued.
So far this year, Bernanke has managed to forge consensus for his policies. All the Fed's decisions this year have been unanimous. But the deepening divides could make Bernanke's job harder.
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