Taper on Track, Fed Freed Up to Tackle Bigger Questions

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Federal Reserve
Susan Walsh/APFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
By Ann Saphir
and Jonathan Spicer


Federal Reserve policymakers this week are set to continue paring their massive bond-buying stimulus, but below the smooth surface of a likely unanimous vote lies a deeply divided Fed struggling to lay the groundwork for more difficult decisions ahead.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen hinted at the U.S. central bank's broad agenda a couple weeks ago when she laid out three "big" issues officials need to track: the level of slack in the labor market, whether inflation is rising back toward the Fed's 2 percent goal, and the factors that could derail the economic recovery.

Unexpected "twists and turns," she said, could force the Fed to diverge from its highly telegraphed plan to end asset purchases later this year and raise interest rates in 2015.

Yellen and her colleagues are debating what economic conditions would set the stage for a rate hike, whether the Fed should start letting its balance sheet shrink before or after it acts to push up borrowing costs, and whether it should respond to the possibility of asset bubbles in some markets.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Fed officials, who will meet Tuesday and Wednesday, disagree sharply on the answers to these questions, and consequently on the best longer-term plan for rate rises. But unlike their counterparts at the European Central Bank, who face a threat of deflation, U.S. central bankers are under little pressure to pivot quickly on policy.

"We doubt any major change will emerge" in the Fed's policy statement, said Annalisa Piazza, fixed income strategist at Newedge. The statement, to be released Wednesday at 2 p.m. Eastern time, at the close of the meeting, won't be accompanied by new economic forecasts or a news conference, events that are only scheduled quarterly.

Recent data has largely borne out the Fed's presumption that a mid-winter slowdown in the economy was due to unusually severe weather. In addition, with bond yields down and stock prices up since the Fed began tapering its asset purchases in January, market conditions aren't threatening to undercut the economy's momentum.

The relative stability makes it an easy call for the Fed to trim its monthly bond buying by $10 billion for a fourth consecutive meeting. This would take the purchases down to $45 billion and put the Fed about halfway along its plan to end the quantitative easing program by late this year.

And because officials completed a much-needed revamp of a low-rate promise last month, they can now take the time to dig into the longer-term strategy that will guide them when they finally begin raising rates.

Raising Rates: 'A Matter of Feel'

At the last policy meeting in March, all but one official backed a new pledge to keep rates near zero for a "considerable time" after the bond-buying ends. The lone dissenter, Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota, has already signaled he won't continue to dissent.

Since then, a handful of officials have suggested the Fed should be more specific about when rates will rise. Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren has floated the idea of keeping rates near zero until the economy is within one year of reaching full employment and 2 percent inflation.

Richard Fisher, who heads the Dallas Fed, panned the idea. "It is a matter of feel," he told reporters in Austin earlier this month. "I don't think you can put a specific time frame on it. And I wish we could, but I don't think that would be responsible monetary policy."

Another question policymakers need to answer in coming months is whether a test facility for conducting reverse repurchase agreements, which temporarily drain cash from the financial system and could help control market rates when the Fed tightens monetary policy, will be adopted as a key tool.

The relatively quiet bond market "allows the Fed to reflect on big-picture themes," said Thomas Costerg, economist at Standard Chartered Bank. "There is mounting pressure to clarify the exit strategy and the role of some liquidity facilities, although it is unlikely that the Fed will decide this now."

-Additional reporting by Richard Leong in New York.

Taper on Track, Fed Freed Up to Tackle Bigger Questions
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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