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Fed holds off on steps to boost recovery, cites moderate growth

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve says the economy is growing moderately while cautioning that risks from Europe remain. It’s holding off on taking any further steps to boost the recovery.

In a statement after a two-day meeting, the Fed said Wednesday that the job market has improved slightly but that unemployment remains elevated. It said the housing market has improved somewhat but remains depressed. It also pointed to a pickup in inflation but said it should be only temporary.

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The Fed stuck with its plan to keep a key short-term interest rate near zero through at least late 2014. It announced no new plans for further bond buying after a current program ends in June.

Its decision to leave policy unchanged had been widely expected and had little impact on financial markets.

The Fed’s stay-the-course decision was approved on a 9-1 vote of the central bank’s key policy panel, the Federal Open Market 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 will warrant a record low rate late that long.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will meet with reporters later Wednesday, marking a year since he began holding quarterly news conferences as a way of providing more openness about the Fed’s decision-making process.

After their policy meeting in January, Bernanke and his colleagues had 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. Those developments make a further round of Fed bond buying less likely, many economists say.

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.

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.

In September, the Fed began a $400 billion bond program dubbed Operation Twist. Under this program, the Fed is not expanding its portfolio but instead selling shorter-term securities it owns and buying longer-term bonds. The goal is to push down long-term rates. That program is scheduled to end in June.

At his previous quarterly news conference in January, Bernanke said a third round of bond buying, known as quantitative easing, 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 had expected the Fed to keep more bond buying as at least an option. They pointed 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.

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.

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