Fed considers more clarity on interest rate policy

AP News
Posted: Nov 22, 2011 3:29 PM
Fed considers more clarity on interest rate policy

Federal Reserve policymakers this month discussed how they could give businesses and investors more information about what might trigger an increase in interest rates, according to minutes of the Nov. 1-2 meeting.

But the Fed held off making any changes.

A panel headed by Vice Chairman Janet Yellen is exploring ways to provide more information on future central bank moves. More clarity on interest rate policy could help reassure investors and businesses that rates will stay low.

At its August meeting, the Fed said it planned to keep short-term rates near zero until at least mid-2013, as long as economic growth remained weak.

The Fed has kept its key short-term interest at a record low since December 2008. That is the rate that banks charge on overnight loans and it serves as the benchmark for millions of business and consumer loans.

After its November meeting, the Fed sketched a bleaker outlook for the U.S. economy, which it predicted would grow much more slowly and face higher unemployment than it had estimated in June.

The Fed announced no new policy actions after the meeting. But the gloomier forecast increased the likelihood that it would take new steps soon.

One option could be to buy mortgage-backed securities, which could directly support the depressed housing market by lowering loan rates. Another would be launching a third round of Treasury bond purchases, similar to the $600 billion program that the Fed brought to a close in June.

But economists said they didn't expect any new action at the Dec. 13 meeting, based on the minutes from the November meeting.

Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said the discussion in the minutes showed little support for another round of bond buying, at least in the immediate future.

Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, said if the economy continues to underperform, the Fed would buy mortgage-backed securities.

The decision to leave policy unchanged in November was approved on a 9-1 vote. Charles Evans, the president of the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank, dissented after pushing for stronger efforts to try to boost the economy.

The vote was a shift from the previous two Fed meetings when three members had dissented for the opposite reason. In September, the central bank announced that it would shuffle its holdings of Treasury securities to try to further lower long-term interest rates. The August meeting was when the Fed announced its plan to keep short-term interest rates low through mid-2013, as long as the economy stayed weak.

The three members who dissented said those moves increase the risks of future inflation. The rest of the board seemed to agree that inflation is under control and the Fed should focus more on policies that could help lower the unemployment rate.

In November, the Fed downgraded its outlook for the economy. It predicted growth of no more than 1.7 percent this year and 2.7 percent in 2012. Both are below what's needed to lower the unemployment rate, which has been stuck near 9 percent since the recession officially ended.

The Fed doesn't see that changing much. It predicts the unemployment rate will average 8.6 percent at the end of next year.

At a news conference after the meeting, Bernanke said the pace of economic growth is "frustratingly slow" and said that the central bank remained "prepared to take action as appropriate to make sure the recovery continues.