WASHINGTON – Several Federal Reserve policymakers this month favored slowing the Fed's efforts to maintain record-low long-term interest rates as early as June -- if the economy showed strong and sustained growth. But those officials appeared at odds over what evidence would demonstrate such gains.
Minutes of the Fed's April 30-May 1 meeting released Wednesday show "a number" of members expressed a willingness to scale back the $85 billion a month in Treasury and mortgage bonds the Fed has been purchasing, perhaps as soon as next month, if the economy accelerates. The Fed next meets on June 18-19.
Still, Chairman Ben Bernanke, the Fed's most important voice, signaled Wednesday in testimony to Congress that it is too soon for the Federal Reserve to slow its extraordinary stimulus programs.
Reducing the Fed's efforts to keep borrowing rates low would "carry a substantial risk of slowing or ending the economic recovery," Bernanke said in testimony to the Joint Economic Committee, a panel that includes members of the House and Senate.
The Fed has been buying $85 billion a month in Treasury and mortgage bonds since September. That has helped lower long-term interest rates and encouraged more borrowing and spending.
After the April 30-May 1 meeting, the Fed said it could increase or decrease the pace depending on how the job market and inflation fare.
In recent months, the job market and the broader economy have shown renewed vigor. The economy has added an average of 208,000 jobs a month since November. That's up from only 138,000 a month in the previous six months.
At Wednesday's hearing, Bernanke noted that the economy is growing moderately this year and unemployment has fallen to a four-year low of 7.5 percent. Still, unemployment remains well above levels consistent with healthy economies. And Bernanke said higher taxes and deep federal spending cuts are expected to slow economic growth this year.
When pressed by lawmakers, Bernanke said the pace could be reduced over the next few meetings, if the job market shows "real and sustainable progress." And he wouldn't rule out curtailing the purchases by Labor Day.
But Bernanke said that the Fed could just as quickly reverse course and pick up the pace if the economy falters.