The Fed prepares to end a controversial program, and its next move could have major implications for investors.
The Federal Reserve's bond-buying program has been one of the main drivers behind the market rally over the past nine months. The Wall Street Journal reports the central bank has now decided what to do next, but the timing is still up in the air.
The Fed has been buying $85 billion worth of bonds each and every month since September. The intent has been to boost the economy and encourage new borrowing and spending by businesses and individuals, which would hopefully lead to more hiring.
What the Fed wants to do next is start to unwind the program, but not all at once. The Journal says that officials want to make a gradual exit, in order to maintain lots of flexibility so that they can adjust to ups and downs of the economy.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has previously indicated he wants to avoid a mistake that has been made on other occasions, when the Fed halted stimulus programs too quickly or too abruptly. So the new plan is designed to wean the economy from the support it's been getting, and to give the Fed the ability to react more quickly to changes in the economy – and perhaps the markets too. The central bank wants to manage market expectations to avoid overreactions.
Some Fed officials say the economy is strong enough right now to begin withdrawing that stimulus as soon as this summer. Others support the idea of gradually doing so, but say the time is not yet right. They want to wait until the evidence is clear that economic growth is firmly on track.
A number of Fed officials give public speeches this week that could give a better indication about the timing, including Bernanke. He will discuss the long-term prospects for the economy when he gives the commencement address at Bard College on Saturday.
Fed policymakers meet again in June, July and September.
-Produced by Drew Trachtenberg
9 Numbers That'll Tell You How the Economy's Really Doing
Midday Report: Fed to Wind Down Stimulus Program, but When?
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.