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Fed Likely to Keep Buying Bonds

Binyamin Appelbaum
Monday, 10 Dec 2012 | 11:02 AM ET
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Ben Bernanke
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Ben Bernanke

The Federal Reserve is widely expected to announce on Wednesday that it will continue buying Treasury securities to stimulate growth in the new year.

The Fed's public declaration in September that it would buy bonds until the outlook for the labor market "improved substantially" has cleared away much of the uncertainty and controversy that usually precedes such announcements.

The economic recovery remains lackluster and millions are looking for work. But while some analysts question the central bank's ability to improve the situation, few doubt that the Fed, under its chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, is determined to keep trying.

Indeed, while Fed officials continue to warn that a failure to avert scheduled tax increases and spending cuts next year would overwhelm their efforts and plunge the economy back into recession, they have also said that even if Congress and the White House negotiate a compromise, the Fed's efforts would continue.

"I am not prepared to say we are remotely close to substantial improvement on the employment front," Dennis P. Lockhart, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, said in a recent speech. "I expect that continued aggressive use of balance sheet monetary tools will be appropriate and justified by economic conditions for some time, even if fiscal cliff issues are properly addressed."

The remarks were particularly significant because Mr. Lockhart is among the moderate members of the Federal Open Market Committee whose support Mr. Bernanke invested months in winning before starting the new policy.

With the direction of policy clearly set, debate has turned to the details. The Fed, whose policy-making committee is meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday, still must determine what to buy and how much to spend, and officials continue to debate the best way to describe when the agency is likely to stop buying.

In making those decisions, the Fed must balance its conviction that buying bonds reduces borrowing costs for businesses and consumers against concerns the purchases might disrupt financial markets or inhibit its control of inflation.

Analysts say the immediate answer is likely to be more of the same. The Fed currently buys $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities and $45 billion of Treasury securities a month. Officials highlighted that $85 billion figure in September, and have indicated since that it remained their rough target.

"It would be odd for them to disappoint the expectations that they have created themselves," Kris Dawsey of Goldman Sachs wrote in a note to clients predicting that the Fed would maintain both the dollar amount and the division. Other analysts have suggested the Fed might slightly decrease the total amount of purchases, to $80 billion, or increase the share of mortgage securities.

The Fed is unlikely to announce a new timetable this week, analysts said. The committee has said that it does not plan to raise interest rates before the middle of 2015, and that it will stop buying bonds before it starts raising rates.

Many officials on the 12-member committee — perhaps even the majority — would prefer to substitute economic objectives for guidance set by the calendar. The Fed's ability to reduce borrowing costs derives in part from persuading investors that interest rates will remain low.

Telling investors how the economic situation must change in order to warrant a change in policy could be more convincing, and therefore more potent, than simply publishing an estimated endpoint, these officials say.

But an account of the committee's previous meeting, in late October, showed that officials remained divided about which economic objectives to use.

The most vocal proponent of focusing on economic goals, Charles L. Evans, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said last month that the Fed should declare its intent to keep short-term interest rates near zero until the unemployment rate fell below 6.5 percent, provided that the rate of inflation did not exceed 2.5 percent.

"I believe we have the ability to go even further in reassuring financial markets and the general public that policy will stay appropriately accommodative," Mr. Evans said in advocating the change during a speech in Toronto.

Other officials have misgivings about placing such emphasis on any single economic indicator, or on the unemployment rate in particular.

The discussions are moving slowly, in part because it is not clear the changes being contemplated would have significant benefits. The targets the Fed is considering closely resemble its own past practice, meaning the new thresholds would tend to reinforce rather than shift expectations.

Lou Crandall, chief economist at the research firm Wrightson ICAP, noted in a recent analysis that the unemployment rate exceeded 7 percent in the mid-1980s and again in the early 1990s, and in both cases the Fed waited until the rate fell well into the 6 percent range before it began to raise interest rates.

The relative complacency of Fed officials also reflects their judgment that the mortgage-bond purchases announced in September are working. Average interest rates on 30-year mortgages are at the lowest levels on record, averaging 3.35 percent in November, according to Freddie Mac's regular survey.

"This is solid evidence that our policy has been and continues to be effective — though it is certainly not all-powerful in current circumstances," William C. Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said last week.

To continue the companion purchases of Treasury securities, the Fed will need to change its approach. It is now buying long-term securities with proceeds from the sale of short-term securities, but it is running out of inventory to sell.

The most likely alternative is to create money by crediting the accounts of banks that sell bonds to the Fed, the same method now being used to buy mortgage bonds and also to finance earlier rounds of the Fed's so-calledquantitative easing.

The Fed has repeatedly overestimated the health of the economy and the impact of its efforts. This time, officials have promised to maintain their efforts even as the economy shows signs of improvement. But they are once again sounding notes of cautious optimism about the coming year — if Washington does not interfere.

A budget deal reducing deficits in the long term, Mr. Bernanke said in November, "could help make the new year a very good one for the American economy."

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