August 11, 2010
by Scott Lanman
Federal Reserve officials decided to reinvest principal payments on mortgage holdings into long-term Treasury securities, making their first attempt to bolster growth since March 2009 to keep the slowing U.S. economy from relapsing into recession.
“The pace of economic recovery is likely to be more modest in the near term than had been anticipated,” the Federal Open Market Committee said in a statement in Washington. “To help support the economic recovery in a context of price stability, the Committee will keep constant the Federal Reserve’s holdings of securities at their current level.” The Fed retained a commitment to keep its benchmark interest rate close to zero for an “extended period.”
With growth weakening in the second quarter and company job gains in July falling short of estimates, today’s step signals that risks of a downturn have increased enough for the Fed to delay its exit from unprecedented stimulus. Chairman Ben S. Bernanke told Congress last month that the Fed was “prepared to take further policy actions as needed.”
The Fed said it will “continue to roll over the Federal Reserve’s holdings of Treasury securities as they mature.” The reinvestment policy applies to agency debt and agency mortgage- backed securities held by the central bank.
The central bank left the overnight interbank lending rate target unchanged in a range of zero to 0.25 percent, where it’s been since December 2008. High unemployment, low inflation and stable price expectations “are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period,” the Fed said, repeating language from every policy meeting since March 2009.
“The pace of recovery in output and employment has slowed in recent months,” the FOMC said. The Fed will “continue to monitor the economic outlook and financial developments and will employ its policy tools as necessary to promote economic recovery and price stability.”
U.S. central bankers repeated that inflation is “likely to be subdued for some time.” Prices in June rose 1.4 percent from a year earlier, the third straight month of slowing gains under the Fed’s preferred index, which excludes food and energy costs.
Kansas City Fed President Thomas Hoenig dissented from the decision for the fifth straight meeting.
Fed policy makers, at their last meeting in June, judged that the central bank “would need to consider whether further policy stimulus might become appropriate if the outlook were to worsen appreciably,” according to minutes of the session. Records of today’s meeting will be released Aug. 31.
Bernanke said in an Aug. 2 speech that “we have a considerable way to go to achieve a full recovery in our economy.” Still, he avoided signaling that the central bank would reverse months of reductions in record stimulus and liquidity programs, including the end to $1.7 trillion in purchases of housing debt and Treasuries.
St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said July 29 that while he expects a continued recovery, policy makers should be ready to buy Treasuries if the economy slows further.
The Fed’s last move in favor of easier policy came in March 2009, when policy makers agreed to buy $300 billion of Treasuries and more than double planned mortgage-debt purchases to $1.45 trillion while starting a pledge to keep the benchmark rate close to zero for an “extended period.”
This year the central bank stopped buying assets, raised the rate on direct loans to banks and shut emergency-lending programs for corporations, bond dealers and money-market mutual funds. It’s also developed tools for raising rates with a near- record $2.3 trillion balance sheet.
Today’s decision defied easy prediction after a report Aug. 6 showed U.S. private employers added 71,000 jobs in July, below the 90,000 median estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 9.5 percent. Including government workers, the U.S. lost 131,000 jobs in July, compared with the median estimate of 65,000.
The weak job market has inhibited growth in consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy. Such expenditures rose at a 1.6 percent pace last quarter, down from a 1.9 percent rate in the previous three months that was smaller than previously estimated.
“They’re supposed to keep inflation under control, but they’re also supposed to promote full employment,” Christopher Low, chief economist at FTN Financial in New York, said in a Bloomberg Television interview before the announcement. “The Fed is starting to worry about hitting that full-employment goal any time in the next three or four years.”
Aeropostale Inc., a retailer to teenagers whose sales rose in July at one-seventh the pace analysts predicted, said changing consumer preferences and a “challenging” retail environment hampered spending. Sales at J.C. Penney Co., a department-store chain, fell 0.6 percent last month.
Still, Bernanke and other officials in recent weeks had maintained their outlook for a pickup in the economy over the next year. Corporate spending on equipment and software jumped at a 22 percent annual rate last quarter.
While weakness in housing and commercial real estate will restrain the recovery, and the job market’s “slow recovery” weighs on consumers, “rising demand from households and businesses should help sustain growth,” Bernanke said in a speech last week in Charleston, South Carolina.
United Parcel Service Inc., the world’s largest package- delivery company, raised its annual profit forecast last month and posted second-quarter earnings that climbed more than analysts estimated on increased demand overseas.
The S&P 500 Index has rebounded 12 percent as of yesterday from its low this year on July 1.
Investors don’t expect the Fed to raise the federal funds rate until late 2011, based on futures contracts on the Chicago Board of Trade.
The housing market has faltered since a federal tax incentive for first-time homebuyers expired in April. Sales of previously owned homes fell 5.1 percent in June from May, housing starts slid to the lowest level in eight months and the 330,000 annual pace of new-home sales was the second-lowest in data going back to 1963 after May’s 267,000 rate.
The National Bureau of Economic Research, an academic group with a committee that marks the start and end of recessions, has yet to announce a date for the end of the downturn that started in December 2007, even after four straight quarters of growth. Some panel members including Stanford University’s Robert Hall and Jeffrey Frankel of Harvard University have said it’s clear the contraction has probably ended.
July 22, 2010
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress Wednesday the economic outlook remains “unusually uncertain,” and the central bank is ready to take new steps to keep the recovery alive if the economy worsens.
Testifying before the Senate Banking Committee, Bernanke also said record low interest rates are still needed to bolster the economy. He repeated a pledge to keep them there for an “extended period.” Bernanke downplayed the odds that the economy will slide back into a “double-dip” recession. But he acknowledged the economy is fragile.
Given that, the Fed is “prepared to take further policy actions as needed” to keep the recovery on track, he said. Bernanke said Fed policymakers haven’t settled on “leading options” but they are being explored. Those options include lowering the rate the Fed pays banks to keep money parked at the Fed, strengthening the pledge to hold rates at record lows and reviving some crisis-era programs, Bernanke said.
“If the recovery seems to be faltering, we have to at least review our options,” Bernanke told lawmakers. However, he added later: “We are not prepared to take any specific steps in the near term” because the Fed is still evaluating the strength of the recovery.
Bernanke is trying to send Congress, Wall Street and Main Street a positive message that the recovery will last in the face of growing threats. At the same time, he wants to assure Americans that the Fed will take new stimulative actions if necessary.
Wall Street wasn’t convinced. Shortly before Bernanke spoke, the Dow Jones industrial average was up about 20 points. Within minutes, stocks began falling and the Dow was down more than 145 points.
The recovery, which had been flashing signs of strengthening earlier this year, is losing momentum. And fears are growing that it could stall.
Consumers have cut spending. Businesses, uncertain about the strength of their own sales or the economic recovery, are sitting on cash, reluctant to beef up hiring and expand operations. A stalled housing market, near double-digit unemployment and an edgy Wall Street shaken by Europe’s debt crisis are other factors playing into the economic slowdown.
“In short, it look likes our economy is in need of additional help,” said the committee’s chairman, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. And, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the highest-ranking Republican on the panel, said the economic outlook has become a “bit more cloudy.”
With little appetite in Congress to provide a major new stimulus package, more pressure falls on Bernanke to keep the recovery going. Bernanke and his Fed colleagues have cut their forecasts for growth this year.
If the recovery were to flash serious signs of backsliding, the Fed could revive programs to buy mortgage securities or government debt. It could cut to zero the interest rate paid to banks on money left at the Fed or lower the rate banks pay for emergency Fed loans. The Fed also could create a new program to spark more lending to businesses and consumers in a bid to lure them to ratchet up spending and grow the economy.
Bernanke said the debt crisis in Europe, which has rattled Wall Street, played a role in the Fed’s “somewhat weaker outlook.” Although financial markets have improved considerably since the depth of the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, conditions have become “less supportive of economic growth in recent months,” he explained.
As a result, Bernanke said progress in reducing the nation’s unemployment rate, now at 9.5 percent, is now expected to be “somewhat slower” than thought. Unemployment is expect to stay high, in the 9 percent range, through the end of this year, under the Fed’s forecast.
High unemployment is a drag on household spending, Bernanke said, although he believed both consumers and businesses would spend enough to keep the recovery intact.
Bernanke also said it would take a “significant amount of time” to restore the nearly 8.5 million jobs wiped out over 2008 and 2009.
And, Bernanke said the housing market remains “weak” and noted that the overhang of vacant or foreclosed houses are weighing on home prices and home construction.
Given the weak recovery, inflation is not a problem, Bernanke said. However, Bernanke didn’t talk about deflation, a prolonged and destabilizing drop in prices for goods, the values of stocks and homes and in wages. Although most economists think the prospects of deflation are remote, some Fed officials have expressed concern about it.
To strengthen the economy, many economists predict the Fed will hold a key bank lending rate at a record low near zero well into 2011, or possibly into 2012. Doing so, would help nip any deflationary forces.
And keeping that bank rate at super low levels also would mean rates on certain credit cards, home equity loans, some adjustable-rate mortgages and other consumer loans would stay at their lowest point in decades.
Ultra-low lending rates, however, haven’t done much lately to rev up the economy. Consumers and businesses are cautious and aren’t showing an appetite to spend as lavishly as they usually do in the early stages of economic recoveries.
Bernanke, meanwhile, welcomed Congress’ new revamp of financial regulations signed into law by President Barack Obama on Wednesday. The new law, he said, “will place our financial system on a sounder foundation and minimize the risk of a repetition of the devastating events of the past three years.”