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Fed Officials Indicate Growth Pickup Won’t Alter Bond Purchases

Ben S. Bernanke, Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve
Bernanke said last week that “we see the economy strengthening,” and added, “you’re not going to reduce unemployment at the pace that we’d like it to.” Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Federal Reserve policy makers, who see unemployment falling too slowly for their liking, are giving no indication that signs of an accelerating recovery will dissuade them from carrying out record monetary-stimulus plans.

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said last week that “we see the economy strengthening,” and added, “you’re not going to reduce unemployment at the pace that we’d like it to.” Fed Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard said in an interview that while the U.S. outlook has improved, he wants to see more evidence before altering the Fed’s plan to buy $600 billion in Treasuries through June.

U.S. central bankers, who meet in Washington on Jan. 25-26, may have another concern, said former Fed Governor Lyle Gramley. While growing consumer spending points to a quickening pace of expansion, curtailing the monetary stimulus may be seen by investors as a tightening of credit that could threaten growth, he said.

“Cutting off an easing program is a step in the direction of tightening,” said Gramley, senior economic adviser with Potomac Research Group in Washington. “And you’d be doing it in the context of a financial market that’s pushing up long-term rates already.”

Yields on 10-year Treasuries increased to 3.33 percent yesterday from 2.57 percent on Nov. 3, when the Fed approved a second round of large-scale asset purchases in a bid to spur growth by keeping borrowing costs low. Bernanke last week said the increase in bond yields reflects an improved economic outlook, not a failure of the Fed’s program.

Interest-Rate Outlook

Economists surveyed by Bloomberg News this month don’t expect the Fed to begin raising its benchmark interest rate until the first quarter of 2012, based on the median forecast of 53 respondents. Economists raised their forecast for average growth this year to 3.1 percent from 2.6 percent in the previous month’s survey.

Reports last week on retail sales and industrial production supported prospects for quickening growth that may boost demand for products ranging from Ford Motor Co. cars to Apple Inc. iPads.

Purchases climbed 0.6 percent, capping the biggest annual increase in more than a decade, Commerce Department figures showed. Output at factories, mines and utilities increased 0.8 percent, the most in five months, according to Fed data.

“It looks better in the last few months,” Bernanke said Jan. 13 at a forum in Arlington, Virginia, hosted by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. “We think that a 3 to 4 percent-type of growth number for 2011 seems reasonable.”

Several Years

Still, Boston Fed president Eric Rosengren said in a speech last week that under current policy, it will take several years to reach full employment and bring the inflation rate up to about 2 percent.

Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo told CNBC last week that “I haven’t seen anything which would warrant a reconsideration” of the Fed’s asset-purchase plans.

The economy added 103,000 jobs in December, fewer than forecast by economists, Labor Department figures showed Jan. 7. The unemployment rate fell to 9.4 percent from 9.8 percent as many workers dropped out of the labor force. The rate has been 9.4 percent or higher since May 2009, and Fed policy makers projected in November it will be about 9 percent at the end of this year.

Fed officials have the flexibility to maintain the stimulus in part because inflation is “still stuck there in the gutter,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd. in New York.

Legislative Mandate

Prices excluding food and energy costs rose 0.8 percent in November from a year earlier, based on the Fed’s preferred index. That’s below the 1.6 percent to 2 percent range central bank officials say is consistent with achieving their legislative mandate for stable prices in the long run.

The central bank is still “a long way away” from its dual mandate, which also includes full employment, and it will complete the Treasury purchases, said Mark Spindel, chief investment officer at hedge fund Potomac River Capital LLC, which manages more than $300 million in Washington.

Even if the Fed carries out its bond-purchase program as planned, some central bankers may favor removing stimulus soon afterward.

Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser said yesterday that while unemployment will probably stay too high for the foreseeable future, he hasn’t ruled out favoring a rate increase this year.

Gaining Traction

“If economic growth in the United States continues to gain traction and the prospects begin to look ever better, it might be time for us to begin thinking about how do we begin to gradually take our foot off the accelerator,” Plosser told reporters in Santiago, Chile. Asked if the recovery may improve enough this year that he’d want to begin tightening, he said, “It might. I’m not going to rule that out.”

One risk is that a long period of short-term rates near zero is “increasing the interest-rate sensitivity” of consumers and businesses, said Axel Merk, chief investment officer at Merk Funds.

“Any tightening has this amplified effect,” said Merk, who manages about $500 million in Palo Alto, California. “That is the real challenge. The further we go down this road, the more difficult it is to undo it.”

Still, “Bernanke wants to have a recovery firmly established before an exit,” Merk said.

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