Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke signaled additional monetary stimulus may be needed to lower U.S. unemployment as policy makers projected little acceleration in growth after last quarter’s pickup.
Potential actions are “on the table,” including a third round of securities purchases, extending the period of record-low interest rates or being more specific about when rates would rise, Bernanke said at a press conference yesterday after officials met for two days in Washington. Stocks added to gains while the dollar weakened against the euro.
Bernanke warned that economic improvement will probably be “frustratingly slow,” with policy makers forecasting a 1 percentage-point drop in the jobless rate to about 8 percent over two years. The chairman said buying mortgage bonds is a “viable option,” comments that give the idea an “extra push” and increase already-high odds of the move, said Neal Soss, chief economist at Credit Suisse in New York.
“He repeatedly referred to his disappointment with his best judgment about the economy’s prospects,” said Soss, who was an aide to former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. “If you’re unsatisfied, and you’ve got some tool that might help, in due course you’re supposed to use it.”
Additional easing may occur by February and could coincide with possible actions by new European Central Bank President Mario Draghi to contain fallout from the continent’s sovereign-debt crisis, Soss said.
Bernanke’s comments and the lowered economic projections followed a Federal Open Market Committee statement saying “significant downside risks” remain to the outlook even after third-quarter growth “strengthened somewhat.” The risks include “concerns about European fiscal and banking issues,” said Bernanke, 57.
Officials left unchanged their plans to lengthen the maturity of the Fed’s bond portfolio, known as Operation Twist, and to keep the target federal funds rate near zero through at least mid-2013 as long as unemployment remains high and the inflation outlook remains “subdued.”
The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index rose 1.6 percent yesterday to 1,237.90, the first gain in three days. The dollar weakened 0.3 percent to $1.3747 against the euro. Yields on 10-year Treasuries were little changed at 1.99 percent.
The vote for yesterday’s statement was 9-1. Chicago Fed President Charles Evans opposed the decision, the first dissent in favor of easier policy since Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren in December 2007. Evans favored “additional policy accommodation,” the Fed said without elaborating.
He said Sept. 7 that the central bank “should seriously consider actions that would add very significant amounts of policy accommodation.” Doug Tillett, a spokesman for the Chicago Fed, declined to comment yesterday on the dissent.
Fed Presidents Richard Fisher of Dallas, Narayana Kocherlakota of Minneapolis and Charles Plosser of Philadelphia supported the statement after dissenting against the August and September decisions to ease policy.
Any new asset purchases would follow two rounds totaling $2.3 trillion that lasted from December 2008 until June 2011. The last net buying of mortgage debt occurred in March 2010, though the Fed decided in September to reinvest maturing housing debt into new mortgage-backed securities instead of Treasuries. Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo on Oct. 20 said buying mortgage bonds should be a leading option because it would help boost home-buying and consumer spending.
“They want to have that option in their back pocket, should the economy remain sluggish and should they fail to make progress with their objectives, especially unemployment,” said Roberto Perli, managing director for policy research at International Strategy & Investment Group in Washington. “They did Operation Twist recently, and they might want to assess whether that is working or not before expanding the balance sheet.”
Before the committee buys more assets, it is likely to want to unveil an enhanced communication strategy, said Perli, a former Fed economist.
Fed governors and regional presidents projected that gross domestic product, adjusted for inflation, will rise by 2.5 percent to 2.9 percent next year, compared with a range of 3.3 percent to 3.7 percent from the prior forecasts in June.
Growth in 2013 will be 3 percent to 3.5 percent, lower than the prior range of 3.5 percent to 4.2 percent, based on the median range of forecasts.
The jobless rate in the fourth quarter of 2012 will range from 8.5 percent to 8.7 percent, up from the previous forecast of 7.8 percent to 8.2 percent, the Fed said in a release separate from the FOMC statement.
The old 2012 projection is now the new 2013 projection for fourth-quarter unemployment of 7.8 percent to 8.2 percent, compared with a range of 7 percent to 7.5 percent in June. By the end of 2014, the jobless rate will be 6.8 percent to 7.7 percent, officials said in their initial projections for the year.
“The medium-term outlook relative to our June projections has been downgraded” and “remains unsatisfactory,” Bernanke said yesterday. “Unemployment is far too high,” and “I fully sympathize with the notion that the economy is not performing the way we would like.”
Stocks have climbed and the economy has picked up since the last FOMC gathering Sept. 20-21. The S&P 500 Index advanced 11 percent in October, the best since 1991, as European leaders agreed to expand their bailout fund. The rally snapped five months of losses.
Profits for companies in S&P 500 climbed 18 percent on average in the third quarter, based on results reported so far. Earnings are beating analyst predictions by 5.6 percent, compared with an average rate of 3.3 percent since 2005.
Last week, the Commerce Department reported that the economy grew at a 2.5 percent annual pace in the third quarter, compared with 0.4 percent in the first quarter and 1.3 percent in the second.
Still, growth and job creation haven’t been fast enough to lower the unemployment rate.
The Labor Department will report Nov. 4 that payrolls expanded by 95,000 jobs in October, according to the median estimate of a Bloomberg survey of 65 economists. Unemployment is forecast to remain at 9.1 percent for the fourth consecutive month.
“The FOMC is inclined toward a more accommodative policy,” said Ward McCarthy, chief financial economist at Jefferies & Co. in New York. “It seems very clear that is where Bernanke and other policy makers think policy is headed.”