Federal Reserve officials made their first attempt to bolster the economy in more than a year, saying they will maintain their holdings of securities to stop money from draining out of the financial system.
The central bank will reinvest principal payments on mortgage assets it holds into long-term Treasuries after judging that “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 after meeting today in Washington.
Treasuries surged and stocks pared losses as some investors anticipated that today’s move opens the door to a renewed round of asset purchases should the economy slow further. Chairman Ben S. Bernanke told Congress last month that the Fed was “prepared to take further policy actions as needed” to support an economy hobbled by 9.5 percent unemployment.
“With the economy slowing and inflation low, it is too early to pull in the horns,” said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina. “The last thing they want is a smaller balance sheet.”
With growth slowing 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. The Fed retained a commitment to keep its benchmark interest rate close to zero for an “extended period.”
The central bank is “willing to take stronger action if it needs to,” J. Alfred Broaddus, president of the Richmond Fed from 1993 to 2004, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Street Smart” with Carol Massar and Matt Miller. Investors will expect a resumption of large-scale asset purchases if data “remain on the soft side,” Dean Maki, chief U.S. economist at Barclays Capital Inc. in New York, said on the program.
The New York Fed, in a subsequent statement, said it aims to keep its holdings in the System Open Market Account at about $2.054 trillion, the amount it held on Aug. 4. The Fed plans to “concentrate its purchases” in two-year to 10-year Treasuries starting on or about Aug. 17, the statement said.
The central bank will “continue to roll over” its holdings of Treasury securities as they mature, the FOMC said. The reinvestment policy applies to agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities held by the central bank.
The Fed left the overnight interbank lending rate target 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.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 0.6 percent to 1121.06 in New York after dropping as much as 1.4 percent. Yields on 10- year Treasuries fell 7 basis points, or 0.07 percentage point, to 2.76 percent after declining below 2.75 percent for the first time since April 2009.
The principal payments and maturing debt will total about $150 billion to $190 billion over the next 12 months, and investing the proceeds in Treasuries may lower 10-year yields by a “pitiful” 0.05 point to 0.08 point, Harm Bandholz, chief U.S. economist at UniCredit Group in New York, said in a research note.
“The psychological impact of this action, however, might be much larger than that,” because investors may see it as a first step toward additional Treasury purchases, Bandholz said.
Kansas City Fed President Thomas Hoenig dissented from the decision for the fifth straight meeting. Hoenig “judged that the economy is recovering modestly, as projected,” and didn’t believe that keeping the level of securities was needed to “support a return to the committee’s policy objectives,” according to the FOMC statement. He maintained his opposition to the “extended period” rate pledge.
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.
Central bankers aim to minimize the risk of an increase in mortgage costs, said New York University Professor Mark Gertler, who’s collaborated on research with Bernanke. The average rate of a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage dropped to a record 4.49 percent last week, according to Freddie Mac, the home-finance provider seized by the government in 2008 with Fannie Mae.
Today’s move “presumably keeps longer-term rates lower than they would be otherwise,” said Vincent Reinhart, a former Fed monetary-affairs director who’s now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
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. He voted for today’s decision.
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.
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 11 percent 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. Panel members including Stanford University’s Robert Hall and Jeffrey Frankel of Harvard University have said it’s clear the contraction has probably ended.