WASHINGTON – Several Federal Reserve policymakers this month favoured slowing the Fed’s efforts to maintain record-low long-term interest rates as early as June — if the economy showed strong and sustained growth. But those officials appeared at odds over what evidence would demonstrate such gains.
Minutes of the Fed’s April 30-May 1 meeting released Wednesday show “a number” of members expressed a willingness to scale back the $85 billion a month in Treasury and mortgage bonds the Fed has been purchasing, perhaps as soon as next month, if the economy accelerates.
The Fed next meets on June 18-19.
Still, Chairman Ben Bernanke, the Fed’s most important voice, signalled Wednesday in testimony to Congress that it is too soon for the Fed to slow its extraordinary stimulus programs.
The central bank has been buying $85 billion a month in Treasury and mortgage bonds since September. That has helped lower long-term interest rates and encouraged more borrowing and spending.
After the April 30-May 1 meeting, the Fed said it could increase or decrease the pace depending on how the job market and inflation fare.
In recent months, the job market and the broader economy have made strides. The economy has added an average of 208,000 jobs a month since November. That’s up from only 138,000 a month in the previous six months.
On Wednesday, Bernanke told the Joint Economic Committee that the economy is growing moderately this year and unemployment has fallen to a four-year low of 7.5 per cent. Still, unemployment remains well above levels consistent with healthy economies. And Bernanke said higher taxes and deep federal spending cuts are expected to slow economic growth this year.
Bernanke warned that reducing the Fed’s efforts to keep borrowing rates low would “carry a substantial risk of slowing or ending the economic recovery.”
When pressed by lawmakers, Bernanke said the pace of the bond purchases could be curtailed over the next few meetings, if the job market shows “real and sustainable progress.” He wouldn’t rule out curbing those purchases by Labor Day.
But Bernanke said that the Fed could just as quickly reverse course and pick up the pace if the economy falters.
The minutes also showed that there was a discussion over whether the central bank needs to update the strategy it will use to exit from the bond purchases and begin reducing the size of its $3 trillion-plus balance sheet.
The Fed published its exit strategy principles two years ago.
However, since an exit from the bond purchases is “well in the future,” the minutes said it might be better to wait and acquire more information on how the markets are performing before releasing any revised plans.