~~By Joshua Zumbrun & Jeff Kearn
“The committee is prepared to increase or reduce the pace of its purchases to maintain appropriate policy accommodation as the outlook for the labor market or inflation changes,” the Federal Open Market Committee said today at the conclusion of a two-day meeting in Washington.
Chairman Ben S. Bernanke is pressing on with his effort to boost employment as 11.7 million Americans remain jobless almost four years into the expansion. Today’s statement highlights the option to boost purchases in response to data showing economic growth is slowing, in contrast with discussion of the timing of a reduction in the pace of buying at the Fed’s March meeting.
“The statement gives them flexibility on the upside and the downside,” said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina. “The whole debate had centered on when to taper off. Given some of the latest data, the Fed could be more aggressive in its policy.”
The Fed repeated that bond buying will continue “until the outlook for the labor market has improved substantially.” It also left unchanged its statement that it plans to hold its target interest rate near zero as long as unemployment remains above 6.5 percent and the outlook for inflation doesn’t exceed 2.5 percent.
The bar for increasing the pace of purchases “is high,” and growth hasn’t slowed enough to trigger a boost, said Julia Coronado, chief economist for North America at BNP Paribas in New York.
“We would have to be in a significant economic deterioration,” said Coronado, a former Fed economist. “More than likely they will just stay the course much longer than they thought.”
The central bank said today that it expects “economic growth will proceed at a moderate pace, and the unemployment rate will gradually decline.” The committee also said it “anticipates that inflation over the medium term likely will run at or below its 2 percent objective.”
Stocks and Treasury yields remained lower after the statement. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 0.8 percent to 1,584.88 at 3:20 p.m. in New York. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note slid to 1.63 percent, the lowest of the year, from 1.67 percent late yesterday.
Policy makers such as St. Louis Fed President James Bullard have voiced concern about inflation running below their longer- run target of 2 percent. Their preferred gauge of inflation rose 1 percent from a year earlier in March, and Bullard was one of three regional Fed bank presidents who said last month that disinflation may warrant stepped-up stimulus.
The purchases will remain divided between $40 billion a month of mortgage-backed securities and $45 billion a month of Treasury securities. The central bank also will continue reinvesting the proceeds from maturing debt, according to today’s statement.
Kansas City Fed President Esther George dissented for the third meeting in a row, saying the continued “high level of monetary accommodation increased the risks of future economic and financial imbalances.”
The Fed said that fiscal policy “is restraining economic growth.” In its previous statement, the committee said fiscal policy has “become somewhat more restrictive.”
None of the 47 economists in an April 25-29 Bloomberg survey expected the central bank to alter the pace of purchases at today’s meeting. Only one of the economists surveyed expected the Fed to expand purchases, and the others said the Fed’s first move would be to shrink or end them entirely.
Fed officials are seeking to avert a repeat of the last three years, when a summer slump scuttled optimism about the economy’s strength. In each of those instances, the Fed planned to end stimulus programs early in the year, only to boost accommodation after growth lagged behind its forecasts.
The economy expanded at a 2.5 percent annualized rate in the first quarter, the Commerce Department said last week. The gain followed a 0.4 percent fourth-quarter advance, and it trailed the 3 percent gain that was the median estimate of 86 economists surveyed by Bloomberg.
Recent reports on retail sales, factory production and household spending have pointed to a slowdown in economic growth this quarter.
“There’s a pretty broad set of indicators pointing toward deceleration as we go into the second quarter,” said Keith Hembre, who helps oversee $125 billion as chief economist at Nuveen Asset Management LLC in Minneapolis and a former researcher at the Minneapolis Fed. “It reflects a fairly tepid pace of underlying demand growth, weakness abroad and the slowdown and cutbacks in government spending.”
Automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration took effect on March 1. If no action is taken by Congress, spending will be reduced by $85 billion this year and $1.2 trillion over nine years. Consumers are also contending with a two percentage point increase in the payroll tax that took effect in January.
Companies added 119,000 workers in April, the fewest since September, followed a revised 131,000 gain in March that was smaller than initially estimated, figures from the Roseland, New Jersey-based ADP Research Institute showed today. The median forecast of 37 economists surveyed by Bloomberg projected a 150,000 advance.
By hiring fewer employees, companies are signaling they expect demand will deteriorate as reductions in the federal budget and higher taxes weigh on the expansion.
The Labor Department on May 3 will probably say the unemployment rate in April remained unchanged at 7.6 percent as employers added 145,000 workers to payrolls, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey. Payroll growth slid to 88,000 in March from 268,000 the month before.
Manufacturing has shown signs of weakness. The Institute for Supply Management’s factory index fell to 50.7 in April from the prior month’s 51.3, the Tempe, Arizona-based group said today. Economists projected a reading of 50.5 for the gauge, according to the Bloomberg survey median. Fifty is the dividing line between expansion and contraction.
Retail sales dropped in March by the most in nine months, pointing to a slowdown in consumer spending as the first quarter drew to a close, according to a Commerce Department report.
Housing is a bright spot as Fed purchases of bonds push down mortgage rates to near-record lows. The S&P/Case-Shiller index of home values in 20 cities surged 9.3 percent in February from a year earlier, the most since May 2006.
“That certainly will help the economy,” Robert Shiller, the Yale University economics professor who co-created the index, said yesterday in a Bloomberg Radio interview. “It will lift a lot of households that are currently underwater.”
New-home construction in the U.S. climbed in March to the highest level in almost five years, propelled by a surge in multifamily building. Starts climbed 7 percent to a 1.04 million annual rate, the Commerce Department said April 16. Work on multifamily homes jumped 31 percent.
The construction rebound helped Weyerhaeuser Co. (WY) exceed profit and sales estimates in the first quarter. The lumber producer, based in Federal Way, Washington, said housing will probably become a bigger part of its business.
“The U.S. housing market continues its recovery towards long-term trend demand levels,” Chief Executive Officer Dan Fulton said on an April 26 conference call. “The drop in available home inventory is leading to price increases in most markets and increasing demand for new homes, resulting in an increase in housing starts.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Joshua Zumbrun in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Jeff Kearns in Washington at email@example.com