Fed Revamps Rates Guidance, Trims Bond Buys Further

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Fed Chair Janet Yellen Monetary Policy Report To The Senate Banking Committee
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
By Ann Saphir and Krista Hughes

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Reserve on Wednesday dropped the U.S. unemployment rate as its definitive yardstick for gauging the economy's strength, and made clear it would rely on a wide range of measures in deciding when to raise interest rates.

At the same time, it said that dropping a promise to hold rates steady "well past the time" the U.S. unemployment rate falls below 6.5 percent did not indicate any change in the Fed's policy intentions.

"The committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the committee views as normal in the longer run," %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%the Fed said after its two-day meeting, the first chaired by Janet Yellen, who took the helm of the central bank on Feb. 1. She is set to hold a news conference at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time.

The central bank also proceeded with its well-telegraphed reductions to its massive bond-buying stimulus, announcing it would cut its monthly purchases of U.S. Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities to $55 billion from $65 billion.

Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota dissented, saying that dropping the threshold could hurt the credibility of the Fed's commitment to return inflation to 2 percent.

The decision to continue to scale back its stimulus keeps the Fed on track for the measured wind down laid out by Yellen's predecessor, Ben Bernanke. The Fed repeated that it plans to continue trimming the asset purchases in "measured steps" as long as labor conditions continue to improve and inflation shows signs of rising back toward the Fed's 2 percent goal.

The Fed's assessment of the U.S. economy chalked up recent weakness to adverse weather.

The Fed had said since December 2012 that it would not consider raising short-term rates until the jobless rate dropped to at least 6.5 percent, as long as inflation looked set to remain contained.

But the unemployment rate has fallen faster than anticipated, in part because of discouraged job hunters giving up the search, and officials think the economy is still far from ready for higher borrowing costs.

Of the Fed's 16 policymakers, only one believes it will be appropriate to raise rates this year; 13 expect a first rate hike next year, and 2 others see the first rate hike coming in 2016, according to fresh forecasts published on Wednesday. But once rate hikes start, Fed officials see slightly sharper increases than they did in December, with rates ending 2015 at 1 percent and ending 2016 at 2.25 percent, according to the median of forecasts.

In December, Fed officials expected short-term rates to be just 1.75 percent by the end of 2016.

The new forecasts also show Fed officials see unemployment dropping slightly faster, to between 5.6 percent and 5.9 percent by the end of 2015. In December their forecasts called for unemployment falling to between 5.8 percent and 6.1 percent by the fourth quarter of 2015.

Keeping Markets In Line

The Fed has kept overnight rates near zero since December 2008 and has bought more than $3 trillion in long-term debt to keep borrowing costs down and spur investment and hiring.

It began to scale back its stimulus in December, announcing it would trim its monthly bond purchases by $10 billion, after it saw the economy pick up speed in the fall. In January, the Fed said it would cut the purchases by a further $10 billion.

At the same time, it has sought to tamp down any market expectations that rate rises will soon follow with its so-called forward guidance. But as the actual jobless rate neared the threshold, officials began to seek a more durable way to telegraph their view on when they will tighten monetary policy.

They want to keep market expectations aligned with their own forecasts. If traders start to price in earlier rate hikes, the result would be tighter financial conditions that could deter the very investment and hiring that the Fed wants to promote.

Many Fed officials, including Yellen, have said recent weakness in economic data, from jobs and retail sales to industrial production and home building, appears largely due to the unusually harsh winter and should soon dissipate.

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Fed Revamps Rates Guidance, Trims Bond Buys Further
The gross domestic product measures the level of economic activity within a country. To figure the number, the Bureau of Economic Analysis combines the total consumption of goods and services by private individuals and businesses; the total investment in capital for producing goods and services; the total amount spent and consumed by federal, state, and local government entities; and total net exports. It's important, because it serves as the primary gauge of whether the economy is growing or not. Most economists define a recession as two or more consecutive quarters of shrinking GDP.
The CPI measures current price levels for the goods and services that Americans buy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects price data on a basket of different items, ranging from necessities like food, clothing and housing to more discretionary expenses like eating out and entertainment. The resulting figure is then compared to those of previous months to determine the inflation rate, which is used in a variety of ways, including cost-of-living increases for Social Security and other government benefits.
The unemployment rate measures the percentage of workers within the total labor force who don't have a job, but who have looked for work in the past four weeks, and who are available to work. Those temporarily laid off from their jobs are also included as unemployed. Yet as critical as the figure is as a measure of how many people are out of work and therefore suffering financial hardship from a lack of a paycheck, one key item to note about the unemployment rate is that the number does not reflect workers who have stopped looking for work entirely. It's therefore important to look beyond the headline numbers to see whether the overall workforce is growing or shrinking.
The trade deficit measures the difference between the value of a nation's imported and exported goods. When exports exceed imports, a country runs a trade surplus. But in the U.S., imports have exceeded exports consistently for decades. The figure is important as a measure of U.S. competitiveness in the global market, as well as the nation's dependence on foreign countries.
Each month, the Bureau of Economic Analysis measures changes in the total amount of income that the U.S. population earns, as well as the total amount they spend on goods and services. But there's a reason we've combined them on one slide: In addition to being useful statistics separately for gauging Americans' earning power and spending activity, looking at those numbers in combination gives you a sense of how much people are saving for their future.
Consumers play a vital role in powering the overall economy, and so measures of how confident they are about the economy's prospects are important in predicting its future health. The Conference Board does a survey asking consumers to give their assessment of both current and future economic conditions, with questions about business and employment conditions as well as expected future family income.
The health of the housing market is closely tied to the overall direction of the broader economy. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, named for economists Karl Case and Robert Shiller, provides a way to measure home prices, allowing comparisons not just across time but also among different markets in cities and regions of the nation. The number is important not just to home builders and home buyers, but to the millions of people with jobs related to housing and construction.
Most economic data provides a backward-looking view of what has already happened to the economy. But the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index attempts to gauge the future. To do so, the index looks at data on employment, manufacturing, home construction, consumer sentiment, and the stock and bond markets to put together a complete picture of expected economic conditions ahead.
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