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 economic growth should "pick up gradually" — a somewhat brighter view than it offered last time. It said the job market has strengthened slightly but that unemployment remains elevated. And it pointed to a pickup in inflation but said it should be only temporary.
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.
But Chairman Ben Bernanke told reporters at a news conference that bond buying or other steps are still an option if the economy should weaken.
"Those tools remain very much on the table and we will not hesitate to use them should the economy require additional support," Bernanke said.
The Fed has pursued two rounds of purchases of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities to try to push down long-term interest rates. The goal has been to encourage borrowing and spending.
Its decision to leave its 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 campaign to push rates down as long as it has.
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 inflation housing bubble.
The "Fed should declare victory and not intervene" by making further purchases of bonds, Bair said.
Asked about this criticism, Bernanke said it's "a little premature to declare victory" in the Fed's drive to stimulate the economy and lower unemployment.
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 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 warrant a record low rate late for 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 to provide 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. 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 this 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. 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 expect the Fed to keep more bond buying as at least an option. They have 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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