WASHINGTON — Nearly 40 percent of economists polled in an industry survey believe the Federal Reserve will not begin to scale back its multibillion-dollar stimulus program until the fourth quarter, despite widespread speculation the central bank will pull back sooner.
In the survey, released Monday by the National Association of Business Economists, 220 of the group’s members were polled. Ten percent anticipated the Fed would decide to begin tapering its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases at its meeting in September. About 27 percent did not think it would start until the first quarter of 2014.
When the Fed will act has preoccupied investors since chairman Ben Bernanke said in June that the central bank would probably begin the process this year and end the program when the unemployment rate declines to 7 percent, expected in mid-2014. The news ignited a sell-off in the markets, which have been spooked by the prospect ever since.
Minutes of the Fed’s most recent meeting show officials remain divided over whether the economy is strong enough to support a slowdown in stimulus. The bond-buying is intended to tamp down interest rates and boost demand among consumers and businesses.
Some officials believe tepid job growth and weaker-than-anticipated gross domestic product are delaying a slowdown in stimulus, while others worry about the mounting risks of continued bond-buying.
The NABE survey showed 57 percent of economists polled said current monetary policy is ‘‘about right,’’ approximately the same percentage as in March. Half said the Fed would begin to raise short-term interest rates in 2014 — ahead of officials’ own projections.
In their most recent forecast, 15 of the Fed’s top officials said they do not plan on raising rates until 2015. Only three projected a rate hike next year.
The Fed has tried to separate expectations for its bond-buying program from the path of short-term interest rates. Officials have said the Fed will not raise rates from near zero at least until the unemployment rate falls to 6.5 percent or inflation reaches 2.5 percent.
The NABE survey showed about one-third of the economists support that bar for unemployment, about as many think it should be broadened or replaced with other measures of labor conditions. Fifteen percent said it should be eliminated. The economists were much more comfortable with the Fed’s inflation target, according to the NABE poll. About 70 percent said that threshold should stand.