Fed likely to keep stance on rates and bond buys

April 24, 2012 - 6:35 AM
Federal Reserve

FILE - In a Feb. 2, 2012 file photo Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the House Budget Committee. — The Federal Reserve will have plenty to say about the economy Wednesday, April 25, 2012 when its two-day policy meeting ends with a statement, updated forecasts and Chairman Ben Bernanke's latest news conference. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster/file)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve will have plenty to say about the economy Wednesday, when its two-day policy meeting ends with a statement, updated forecasts and Chairman Ben Bernanke's latest news conference.

Whether all that information will signal any shift in its outlook or the prospect of further steps to boost the economy is far from clear.

The Fed will likely repeat its plan to keep short-term interest rates at record lows through 2014. It may also signal that it won't likely launch any new program to lower longer-term rates unless the economy weakens.

That would be a switch from three months ago, when Bernanke and his colleagues ended their January meeting with hints that they were edging closer to a third round of bond buying. The Fed's bond purchases have been intended to drive down long-term rates to encourage borrowing and spending.

But since then, signs have suggested that the U.S. economy has strengthened. And the European debt crisis looks less dire than when the year began, though France's presidential race has muddied the outlook. Those developments make a further round of Fed bond buying less likely, many economists say.

"This will be a wait-and-watch meeting," said David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors. "Despite all the theatrics with a Bernanke press conference and new economic forecasts, I think we will get a very predictable outcome — no change in policy."

That would mean the Fed would retain its plan to keep its benchmark interest rate, the federal funds rate, at a record low until at least late 2014. The Fed set that target at its January meeting and left it unchanged at its March meeting.

The funds rate has been kept near zero since December 2008. That means consumer and business loans tied to that rate have also remained at super-low levels. The lower those loan rates, the more likely people and companies are to borrow and spend and invigorate the economy.

With the federal funds rate as low as the Fed can set it, the central bank has resorted to other unconventional steps to keep long-term rates down. Those rates, such as those for home loans, are set by financial markets.

The Fed has pursued two rounds of purchases of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities. Those efforts have expanded its asset holdings by more than $2 trillion. And at his previous quarterly news conference in January, Bernanke said a third round of bond buying was an option that was "certainly on the table."

Bernanke and other Fed officials have recently sounded less inclined to pursue further bond purchases. But private economists expect the Fed to keep another round as at least an option. They point to the cloudy state of the economy in light of Europe's debt crisis, a potential new spike in oil prices and still-high unemployment.

"There is a lot of uncertainty out there," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial in Chicago. "Europe is in and out of a crisis, week by week. Oil prices look good now, but are they going to stay low?"

On Friday, the government will issue its first estimate of economic growth for the January-March quarter. Many economists are predicting an annual growth rate of 2.5 percent — better than they had expected when the year began. But analysts are concerned that growth could weaken in the current quarter, reflecting payback from an unusually warm winter that boosted economic activity in the first quarter.

The Fed's updated economic forecasts will be examined to see whether officials stick to their January assessments or have grown more upbeat about growth and hiring. A brighter Fed forecast would be seen as a sign that officials will be less likely to take further steps to support the economy for fear of causing high inflation.

One Fed bond-buying program is still underway: a $400 billion program dubbed Operation Twist. Under this program, the Fed sells shorter-term securities and buys longer-term bonds, to try to push down long-term rates. That program is scheduled to end in June. Many economists think the Fed will let it end on schedule.

If the Fed signals Wednesday that Operation Twist will end, it might disappoint investors, who could react by sending stock prices lower and bond yields higher.

"I think markets have broadly discounted expectations that we will get any more Fed easing in the form of further bond purchases," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "But there are some investors who still have hope for further Fed actions, so an announcement of an end to Operation Twist will have a dampening effect on markets."