Fed stands by stimulus, sees stronger economy

The Associated PressMarch 20, 2013 

Bernanke

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke speaks during a news conference in Washington, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, following the Federal Open Market Committee meeting. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

MANUEL BALCE CENETA — AP

— The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that the U.S. economy has strengthened after pausing late last year but still needs the Fed’s extraordinary support to help lower high unemployment.

In a statement after a two-day meeting, the Fed stood by its plan to keep short-term interest rates at record lows at least until unemployment falls to 6.5 percent, as long as the inflation outlook remains mild. And it said it would continue buying $85 billion a month in bonds indefinitely to keep long-term borrowing costs down.

Speaking at a news conference, chairman Ben Bernanke stressed that while the economy has improved, the Fed won’t ease its aggressive stimulus policies until it’s convinced the economic gains can be sustained. An unemployment rate of 6.5 percent is a threshold, not a “trigger,” for a possible rate increase, he said.

Bernanke also said the Fed might vary the size of its monthly bond purchases depending on whether or how much the job market improves. The unemployment rate has fallen to a four-year low of 7.7 percent, among many signs of a healthier economy.

“We are seeing improvement,” said Bernanke, who is from Dillon. “One thing we would need is to see this is not temporary improvement.”

Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, said the Fed appears focused on “whether recent improvement continues, and no changes to the (bond) purchase program appear imminent.”

But O’Sullivan said he thinks the Fed might scale back its bond purchases in the second half of this year if job growth continues to accelerate.

Investors seemed pleased with the Fed’s decision to maintain its low-interest rate policies and with Bernanke’s remarks. The Dow Jones industrial average closed up about 56 points, having risen slightly after the Fed’s statement was released at 2 p.m.

The Fed’s statement took note of the global stresses that have been intensified by the turmoil in Cyprus, which is trying to stave off ruin. No longer does the Fed statement say, as it did in December, that “strains in global financial markets have eased somewhat.”

Bernanke was asked at his news conference whether the flare-up in Cyprus signals that the U.S. financial system might be more vulnerable than bank “stress tests” have shown. He sought to downplay the dangers posed by the tiny Mediterranean nation. Bernanke said that “at this point,” he sees no major risks to the U.S. financial system or economy.

The Fed noted in its statement that the U.S. job market has improved, consumer spending and business investment have increased and the housing market has strengthened. But its latest economic forecasts, also released Wednesday, show that the Fed still doesn’t expect unemployment to reach 6.5 percent until 2015.

The Fed also cautioned that government spending cuts and tax increases could slow the economy. It predicts that growth won’t exceed 2.8 percent this year, slightly lower than its December forecast of 3 percent.

A total of 13 Fed officials still think the first rate increase won’t occur until 2015, the same number as in December. One Fed official thinks the first boost in the short-term lending rate won’t occur until 2016.

The statement was approved on an 11-1 vote.

Though the Fed’s low interest-rate policies are intended to boost borrowing, spending and stock prices, they also hurt retirees and others who depend on income from savings.

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