Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard said an improving U.S. economy may push the unemployment rate down to 7.8 percent by year’s end, and the central bank will probably keep policy unchanged while it waits for more evidence of expansion.
“For right now we’ll stick with the idea that the economy will generally be better in 2012 than 2011,” Bullard said on Bloomberg Radio’s “The Hays Advantage” with Kathleen Hays today. “So far in 2012 the economy has surprised on the upside” and usually when that happens Fed policy makers “will want to get confirmation of that by waiting for more data.”
U.S. job growth slowed in March even as the manufacturing and services sectors continued to signal growth, underscoring the mixed signals policy makers are parsing as they track the recovery’s progress. Fed officials last month said they would favor renewed easing only if growth falters or inflation falls below the 2 percent target, minutes of the meeting showed.
“Unemployment will continue to tick down this year as long as the expansion keeps going,” Bullard, 51, said in the interview in St. Louis.
In positive signs for the economy, both manufacturing and services continued to rebound in March, according to the Institute for Supply Management’s indexes of the two sectors released last week. Still, U.S. employers added 120,000 jobs in March, compared with 240,000 in February, according to Labor Department figures released April 6.
The jobs report helped spur a decline in stocks this week, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index yesterday capping its longest losing streak since November. The index increased 0.7 percent to 1,368.71 at 4 p.m. New York time today, after dropping 4.3 percent over the past five days.
The policy-making Federal Open Market Committee reiterated in its March 13 meeting that the economy will likely warrant low interest rates through at least late 2014. That date will likely change as the outlook for the economy shifts, Bullard said today.
“As we get closer to the actual date, we’re going to have to move it around because the situation will have changed,” he said. “I wouldn’t be reluctant to revise it.”
Bullard currently estimates the economy will grow 3 percent this year.
Bullard, who doesn’t vote on monetary policy this year, was the first Fed official in 2010 to call for a second round of asset purchases. He joined the St. Louis Fed’s research department in 1990 and became president of the regional bank in 2008.
Bullard, speaking to reporters at the St. Louis Fed, said the jobs report for March doesn’t change the outlook “appreciably.”
“I think energy prices are a risk, but I don’t think gas prices are a drag now on the economy,” Bullard said. “But they could go higher and with the picture in Iran, they could be a problem.”