U.S. economic performance remains too mixed for Federal Reserve policymakers to lay out a detailed path for reducing and eventually halting their asset-purchase stimulus plan at their September meeting, a top Fed official said on Tuesday.
Still, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart did not rule out some kind of decrease next month in the $85 billion monthly pace of bond buys currently under way. He simply suggested this would be a decision to be adjusted over time, not the beginning of a pre-ordained pullback.
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"As I see it, a decision to proceed—whether it is in September, October, or December—ought to be thought of as a cautious first step," Lockhart told a meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta.
"The first adjustments to asset purchases, when they occur, should be the beginning of a process with steps that will be determined as later information arrives and certainty about the direction of the economy accumulates."
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Lockhart touted progress in the labor market but said weak economic growth gave him reason for pause. U.S. gross domestic product rebounded to an annual rate of 1.7 percent in the first half of the year following two lackluster quarters.
"Recent data do not present a clear picture," he said. "Employment gains have been strong enough to lower the unemployment rate while GDP growth has remained lackluster."
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U.S. unemployment fell to 7.4 percent in July from 7.6 percent in June.
In response to a financial crisis and deep recession, the Fed slashed official interest rates to effectively zero and bought nearly $3 trillion in mortgage and Treasury securities in an effort to keep long-term interest rates low and support economic recovery.
This story has been updated to reflect that Dennis Lockhart was the speaker.