WASHINGTON – Is this week when the Federal Reserve finally slows its aggressive stimulus for the economy? Or does it want to await more evidence of a consistently improving economy?
It’s a close call.
Yet most economists think the Fed will maintain the pace of its monthly bond purchases to keep long-term loan rates low to spur spending and growth.
The decision carries high stakes for individuals, businesses and global financial markets. A pullback in the Fed’s bond buying would likely send long-term rates up and stock and bond prices down.
Many analysts think the Fed will signal that it expects to slow the pace of its bond purchases from $85 billion a month, perhaps early next year, if the economy strengthens further.
The Fed will announce its decision after its latest policy meeting ends today, just before Chairman Ben Bernanke holds his final quarterly news conference. Bernanke will step down Jan. 31 after eight years as chairman.
That the Fed is even considering slowing its stimulus is testament to the economy’s improvement. Hiring has been robust for four straight months. Unemployment is at a five-year low of 7 percent. Factory output is up. Consumers are spending more at retailers. Auto sales haven’t been better since the recession ended 4 1/2 years ago.
What’s more, the stock market is near all-time highs. Inflation remains below the Fed’s target rate. And the House has passed a budget plan that seems likely to avert another government shutdown next year. The Senate is expected to follow suit.
“It really feels like the economy has finally hit escape velocity,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, citing a term Bernanke has used for an economy strong enough to propel growth and shrink unemployment without the Fed’s extraordinary help.
One complicating factor is the transition the Fed is undergoing as Bernanke enters his final weeks as chairman. Beginning in February, Bernanke will be succeeded by Janet Yellen, now the vice chair. The Senate is expected to confirm Yellen’s nomination as chairman this week.
Investors have been on edge about a pullback in the Fed’s bond purchases since June, when Bernanke proposed a timetable for a slowdown. Bernanke said the Fed could start reducing its bond purchases before 2013 ends and stop the purchases altogether by mid-2014.
His remarks threw markets into turmoil. The Dow Jones industrial average plunged. Interest rates spiked.
Stock markets have since recovered, though the rate on the benchmark 10-year Treasury remains well above its level in early May, before Bernanke hinted of a pullback in bond buying. The higher rate reflects investors’ anticipation of an eventual Fed slowdown.