Fed's Lockhart, Bullard differ over Sept taper

Federal Reserve presidents: Dennis Lockhart, James Bullard and John Williams
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Federal Reserve presidents: Dennis Lockhart, James Bullard and John Williams

Two regional Fed presidents differed Friday on CNBC about whether September would be the right time to begin to scale back the central bank's massive bond purchases, while a third one wouldn't say.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, a voting member of the Fed's policy panel, said he didn't think there's any rush to taper. "I think we can afford to be very deliberate in our decision-making here."

But Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart said he'd support a move to start tapering next month, if the economic numbers between now and then confirm his perception that the economy is on a "moderate growth path."

(Read More: Fed's hawkish message a lever for rates)

San Francisco Fed President John Williams told CNBC the timing of the taper must depend on the economic data. He added that tapering should begin later this year, if the economy progresses.

He refused to say when, but added: "Any tapering ... we do would be in gradual steps over time ... assuming our forecast comes true."

Lockhart and Bullard were on "Squawk Box" from the Federal Reserve's economic symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Williams was also there, and was interviewed on "Squawk on the Street."

Lockhard said a "strong pickup in the second half and into 2014" is in his official economic forecast, but the data coming in so far weren't confirming that scenario. He said he sees full-year GDP growth of 2 percent to 2.5 percent. "I would be supportive [of tapering] in September as long as the data comes in between now and then basically confirm the path we're on," Lockhart said.

Bullard described GDP growth as kind of weak and inflation as low, while saying the labor market is better than it was a year ago. He pointed out that there's one more unemployment report coming out before the Fed's September meeting.

Meanwhile, Lockhart said the unemployment rate could get down to 7.2 percent by year-end. The jobless rate was 7.4 percent last month.

The financial markets have been dissecting everything Fed for indications on whether policymakers will start to taper the central bank's $85-billion-a-month bond-buying program as soon as next month.

Lockhart said the attention paid to Fed leadership right now is unprecedented.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, breaking a 25-year tradition, is not attending the annual retreat. Fed Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen—a leading candidate to succeed Bernanke—will be moderating a panel.

(Read more: Why Bernanke's absence from Jackson Hole matters)

Lockhart added that the choice of a new Fed chairman won't change policymakers' approach to monetary policy.

Williams said the Fed's bond purchases along with low interest rates have had a sizable effect on the real economy.

As for the bond market, he said the sharp move higher in longer-term yields reflects the realization that Fed asset buying won't last forever.

By CNBC's Matthew J. Belvedere. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_SquawkCNBC.