Few expect major shifts as Fed ends policy meeting
WASHINGTON – The Federal Reserve has given the public increasingly more information about its work and its thinking. More doesn't always mean more revealing.
Investors aren't expected to learn much from the Fed's latest policy statement Wednesday or from its updated economic forecasts or from Chairman Ben Bernanke's quarterly news conference.
Most economists think all that information will confirm a few common beliefs: That the Fed plans to keep short-term interest rates at record lows through 2014. That it isn't going to launch any new program to ease long-term rates unless the economy weakens. But it isn't ruling out such a program, either.
"There is a lot going on in terms of communication, but nothing is going to change in terms of policy responses," predicted Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics.
That expectation marks a change in sentiment from three months ago. After their policy meeting in January, Bernanke and his colleagues hinted that they were edging closer to a third round of bond buying. The Fed's bond purchases have been intended to drive down long-term rates to encourage borrowing and spending.
But since then, signs have suggested that the U.S. economy has strengthened. And the European debt crisis looks less dire than when the year began. Those developments make a further round of Fed bond buying less likely, many economists say.
David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors, predicts that Wednesday will be a "wait-and-watch meeting." He foresees "a very predictable outcome — no change in policy."
The prevailing view is that the Fed will retain its plan to keep its benchmark interest rate, the federal funds rate, at a record low until at least late 2014. The Fed set that target at its January meeting and left it unchanged at its March meeting.
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.
With the federal funds rate as low as the Fed can set it, the central bank has resorted to other unconventional steps to keep long-term rates down. Those rates, such as those for home loans, are set by financial markets.
The Fed has pursued two rounds of purchases of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities. Those efforts have expanded its asset holdings by more than $2 trillion.
At his previous quarterly news conference in January, Bernanke said a third round of bond buying was an option that was "certainly on the table."
But more recently, Bernanke and other Fed officials have sounded less inclined to pursue further bond purchases. Private economists expect the Fed to keep more bond buying as at least an option. They point to the cloudy state of the economy in light of Europe's debt crisis, a potential new spike in oil prices and still-high unemployment.
"The economy is a little bit stronger than January, but there is a lot of uncertainty out there," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial in Chicago. "Europe is in and out of a crisis, week by week. Oil prices look good now, but are they going to stay low?"
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.
The Fed's updated economic forecasts will be examined to see whether officials stick to their January assessments or have grown more upbeat about growth and hiring. A brighter Fed forecast would be seen as a sign that officials will be less likely to take further steps to support the economy for fear of causing high inflation.
One Fed bond-buying program is still underway: a $400 billion program dubbed Operation Twist. Under this program, the Fed sells shorter-term securities and buys longer-term bonds, to try to push down long-term rates. That program is scheduled to end in June. Many economists think the Fed will let it end on schedule.
If the Fed signals Wednesday that Operation Twist will end, it might disappoint investors, who could react by sending stock prices lower and bond yields higher.
"Any time there is a hint that there will be no more bond buying or no extension of Operation Twist, the markets get the jitters," Jones said. "There is a tendency for Treasury yields to move higher and for the stock market to weaken."