WASHINGTON -- The Federal Reserve is expected to cut its bond-buying program by a further $10 billion Wednesday as signs mount that the U.S. economy is starting to pull away from its winter slowdown.
Janet Yellen's second policy-setting session as Fed chair should confirm the central bank's plan to wind down its purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities by year-end -- a sign of its confidence the economy is gaining traction.
The reduction likely to be announced at the end of the Fed's two-day meeting would bring the total monthly purchases down to $45 billion, split between $25 billion of Treasuries and $20 billion of mortgage-backed securities.
But analysts expect little more out of the session as the Fed enters what may be a sort of holding pattern as it transitions from an era of crisis response to one of more normal monetary policy.
The meeting "will probably be a quiet one," with the reduction in purchases "a foregone conclusion," and no fresh economic forecasts from the members of the Fed's policymaking committee, said Goldman Sachs senior economist Kris Dawsey.
A statement outlining the policy decision and the Fed's view of the economy will be issued at 2 p.m. Eastern time.
Little or no change is expected in the Fed's guidance on its key overnight interest rate, which it has kept near zero since the depths of the financial crisis in December 2008.
The Fed changed its guidance in March when it dropped language that said the target rate wouldn't be increased until the unemployment rate fell to at least 6.5 percent.
Unemployment has been steadily approaching that threshold, and now stands at 6.7 percent. But with little sign of inflation, Yellen has said she feels there is still ample "slack" in the economy and a need to keep rates low to continue to support economic growth.
During an April 16 speech in New York, she said the United States may still be more than two years away from what the Fed now regards as the "longer-run normal unemployment rate" of between 5.2 percent and 5.6 percent.
"Thus far in the recovery and to this day, there is little question that the economy has remained far from maximum employment," she said.
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%The last Fed statement said rates would likely remain near zero "for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends."
Investors have construed that to mean a rate increase isn't likely until the middle of next year. That, however, will depend on the performance of an economy that is expanding, but not generating much upward pressure on wages and prices.
With inflation well below the central bank's 2 percent objective, "We continue to see the Fed erring on the side of caution and moving on the policy rate later rather than sooner," Millan Mulraine, deputy chief economist at TD Securities in New York, wrote in a preview of the Fed meeting.
"Indeed, the elevated level of economic slack, both in the labor market and other sectors of the economy, will ensure that wage pressures stay weak and pricing power among firms remains contained," Mulraine said.
Data on gross domestic product for the first quarter will be released on Wednesday morning. Analysts expect a poor headline result, largely because of an unusually snowy winter that depressed economic activity.
But the underlying trend is much stronger, said Ben Herzon, senior economist with consulting firm Macroeconomic Advisers.
Both the harsh winter and a slowdown in the accumulation of business inventories will produce an annualized GDP growth reading of about 1 percent for the first quarter, he said. But recent data has already shown the economy is bouncing back.
"The economy is continuing to progress," Herzon said. "Not blockbuster, but decent. The pace of GDP growth is sufficient to keep the unemployment rate moving down."
9 Numbers That'll Tell You How the Economy's Really Doing
Fed Expected to Further Taper Bond-Buying Program
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.