WASHINGTON – Content for now with the current course, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke left open the possibility Wednesday that the Fed will take further action to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment — but not at the cost of high inflation.
He spoke to reporters after Fed policymakers ended a two-day meeting by sticking to their plan to keep interest rates near zero through at least late 2014. The officials said the economy is growing moderately and that the pace will likely pick up.
But they also cautioned that unemployment won't fall sharply anytime soon and that risks from Europe's debt crisis remain. In a statement, they noted that inflation has risen, mainly because of gasoline prices, and they expect the spike to be temporary.
Since the financial crisis, the Fed has pursued two rounds of bond purchases to try to push down long-term interest rates, with a goal of encouraging borrowing and spending.
Bernanke told reporters that more bond purchases, or other steps by the Fed, are still an option if the economy weakens.
"Those tools remain very much on the table," Bernanke said.
The decision to leave Fed policy unchanged had been widely expected, and reaction in financial markets was muted. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note edged higher, and the dollar rose slightly against other currencies. Stock indexes didn't move much.
David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors, said he thinks the Fed will keep another round of bond buying as an option through the rest of this year. But with the economy slowly improving, Jones said, the Fed is unlikely to implement such a program this year.
Critics have expressed concerns that the central bank has raised the risk of higher inflation with its long-running campaign to keep rates low.
In a recent opinion piece in Fortune magazine, Shelia Bair, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., argued that the central bank might be creating a bond market bubble similar to the housing bubble.
The "Fed should declare victory and not intervene" by making further purchases of bonds, Bair said.
Asked about this criticism, Bernanke countered it's "a little premature to declare victory" in the Fed's drive to stimulate the economy and lower unemployment. Bernanke has frequently pointed to the chronically weak housing market and the more than 5 million Americans who have been unemployed for more than six months.
At the same time, Bernanke sought to show that he is mindful of the risks of high inflation. He said the Fed would shape its policy to keep inflation no higher than its target of 2 percent over the long term.
The Fed's decision to keep its current easy-credit stance was approved on a 9-1 vote of the central bank's policy committee, composed of Fed board members in Washington and five regional bank presidents.
As he has at the past two meetings, Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Richmond Fed, opposed the late-2014 target date. The statement said Lacker didn't think economic conditions warrant a record low rate late for that long.
After their policy meeting in January, Bernanke and his colleagues hinted that they were edging closer to a third round of bond buying. But since then, signs have suggested that the U.S. economy has strengthened.
The Fed first set its late-2014 target at the January meeting. That target date represented a move from last August when it announced a mid-2013 target for the first Fed rate move.
The Fed's benchmark funds rate has been kept near zero since December 2008. That means consumer and business loans tied to that rate have also remained at super-low levels. The lower those loan rates, the more likely people and companies are to borrow and spend and invigorate the economy.
After its bond-buying programs expired, the Fed in September began a $400 billion program dubbed Operation Twist. Under that program, the Fed is not expanding its portfolio but instead selling shorter-term securities it owns and buying longer-term bonds to keep their rates down. The program is scheduled to end in June.
On Friday, the government will issue its first estimate of economic growth for the January-March quarter. Many economists are predicting an annual growth rate of 2.5 percent — better than they had expected when the year began.
But analysts are concerned that growth could weaken in the current quarter, reflecting payback from an unusually warm winter that boosted economic activity in the first quarter.
In its updated forecast Wednesday, the Fed predicted that the economy will grow between 2.4 percent and 2.9 percent in 2012 — slightly faster than it predicted after its January policy meeting. However, the Fed is forecasting slower growth in 2013 and 2014. Bernanke attributed those forecasts in part to the expiration of tax cuts and to spending cuts enacted by Congress.
The Fed thinks unemployment, now at a three-year low of 8.2 percent, will be between 7.8 percent and 8 percent at year's end, also slightly better than its previous forecast.
The Fed has slightly raised its estimate for inflation by year's end: between 1.9 percent and 2 percent. Still, that higher forecast is still lower than the Fed's official 2 percent inflation target.
On interest rates, 11 Fed officials are forecasting that the first interest rate hike won't occur until 2014 or later. But no official is looking for the first rate hike to occur as late as 2016. After their January policy meeting, two Fed officials had put the first rate hike that far out.