WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve sketched a brighter economic outlook Wednesday and signaled it's moving closer to slowing its bond-buying program, which is intended to keep long-term interest rates low.
Chairman Ben Bernanke said the Fed could start scaling back its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases later this year if the economy continues to improve. He said the reductions would occur in “measured steps” and that the purchases could end by the middle of next year. By then, Bernanke said he thought unemployment would be around 7 percent.
Bernanke likened any reduction in the Fed's bond purchases to a driver letting up on a gas pedal rather than applying the brakes.
Speaking of the economy, he said, “The fundamentals look a little better to us.”
He spoke at a press conference after the Fed ended a two-day policy meeting. After the meeting, the Fed voted to continue the pace of its bond-buying program for now. But it offered a more optimistic outlook for the U.S. economy and job market.
Investors reacted by selling both stocks and bonds. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 206.04 points to close at 15,112.19.
In its statement, the Fed said the economy is growing moderately. And for the first time it said the “downside risks to the outlook” had diminished since fall.
Timothy Duy, a University of Oregon economist who tracks the Fed, called the statement “an open door for scaling back asset purchases as early as September.”
The fact that the Fed foresees less downside risk to the job market “gives them a reason to pull back” on its bond purchases, Duy said.
The Fed said it will keep buying $85 billion a month in bonds until the outlook for the job market improves substantially. The goal is to lower long-term interest rates to encourage borrowing, spending and investing. It hasn't defined substantially.
Asked if it will be difficult for the Fed to clearly communicate its plans for scaling back the bond purchases, Bernanke agreed.
“We are in a more complex type of situation,” he said. “We are going to be as clear as we can.”
In its statement Wednesday, the Fed said it would maintain its plan to keep short-term rates at record lows at least until unemployment reaches 6.5 percent.
The Fed also released its latest economic projections Wednesday. Fed officials predicted that unemployment will fall a little faster this year, to 7.2 percent or 7.3 percent at the end of 2013 from 7.6 percent now. They think the rate will be between 6.5 percent and 6.8 percent by the end of 2014, better than its previous projection of 6.7 percent to 7 percent.
The Fed also said inflation was running below its 2 percent long-run objective, but noted that temporary factors were partly the reason. It said inflation could run as low as 0.8 percent this year. But it predicts it will pick up next year to between 1.4 percent and 2 percent.
“The more upbeat tone and the change in the unemployment forecast will only encourage expectations for action soon,” Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a research note. “We continue to believe that tapering could start at the Sept. 17-18 meeting.”
But David Robin, co-head of the futures and options desk at the brokerage Newedge, said he didn't think Bernanke's upbeat assessment matches an economy that's just “muddling along.”
Investors may suspect the Fed is looking for a reason to scale back the bond purchases, Robin said. “It's a big mess,” he said.
The statement was approved on a 10-2 vote. James Bullard, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, objected for the first time this year, saying he wanted a stronger commitment from the Fed to keep inflation from falling too low.
Esther George objected for the fourth time this year, again voicing concerns about inflation rising too quickly.
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