Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Dennis Lockhart said the central bank may ease beyond its current plan to buy mortgage-backed securities if the labor market doesn’t show signs of greater strength.
“MBS purchases will continue until we see a better employment situation,” Lockhart said today in a speech in Atlanta. “If we do not see improvement, more action may be taken. And inflation will be monitored closely and kept near 2 percent.”
Lockhart, who votes on monetary policy this year, supported the Federal Open Market Committee’s Sept. 13 decision to expand its holdings of securities with open-ended purchases of $40 billion in mortgage debt each month. The Fed, led by Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, aims through a third round of quantitative easing to boost growth and reduce 8.1 percent unemployment.
“I hope the resolve of the FOMC is clear,” Lockhart said in a speech to the Atlanta Institute of Internal Auditors. “A stronger overall pace of recovery is central to improvement in the labor market.” The committee needed to act because of “discouraging conditions of slowing growth and still high unemployment with meager recent progress in bringing it down.”
The Fed said last week that economic conditions would probably warrant holding the target interest rate near zero through at least mid-2015, extending a previous date of late 2014. Low interest rates will remain appropriate for a “considerable time” after growth strengthens, the central bank said.
Lockhart told reporters after his speech he was skeptical about a proposal made yesterday by Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota that the central bank should hold interest rates at around zero until unemployment drops below 5.5 percent.
“My comment on that is 5.5 percent is much closer to current measures of full employment,” Lockhart said. “I am not so sure that it will not be appropriate to begin the process of tightening before we would get to what we would consider full employment. I don’t want to rule out that could be the case.”
One option for additional Fed action would be purchases of Treasury securities, though such a step isn’t desirable now, Lockhart said to reporters. “Taking stock of the situation will be appropriate early next year,” he said.
U.S. stocks rose, paring the week’s loss for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, as investors watched for developments on Europe’s debt crisis and Apple Inc. started selling the iPhone 5. The S&P 500 rose 0.2 percent to 1,463.48 at 2:15 p.m. in New York.
Lockhart said the economy has been expanding at a rate of less than 2 percent recently, not enough to reduce unemployment significantly. Gross domestic product climbed at a 1.7 percent annual rate in the second quarter, down from 2 percent in the first quarter and 4.1 percent in the fourth quarter of last year.
The Atlanta Fed official said the choice of mortgage-backed-securities for purchases was well timed because the housing market is starting to show improvement.
“By maintaining downward pressure on mortgage rates and by encouraging growth of mortgage-financed purchase activity, sales activity in the Southeast and nationwide should accelerate, and upward pressure on home prices should contribute to consumer confidence,” he said. “The policy action should have positive sector-specific effects with spillover to general conditions.”
Some “headwinds” remain, Lockhart said, including the European debt crisis and the so-called fiscal cliff, the $600 billion of tax increases and spending cuts that will kick in automatically at the end of the year unless Congress acts.
The Congressional Budget Office said in an Aug. 22 economic report that fiscal tightening of that magnitude could cause a recession.
Lockhart, a former Georgetown University professor, has led the Atlanta Fed since 2007. The regional bank is responsible for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and portions of Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.