The Federal Reserve left monetary policy on hold on Wednesday and offered a moderately brighter economic outlook, but it flagged risks to growth that appeared to leave open the door for further easing.
While the U.S. central bank offered no direct hints it was considering fresh steps to help the economy, one official pushed for action. In the end, the Fed mustered a 9-1 vote for a steady course.
Economic growth strengthened somewhat in the third quarter, the central bank said in a post-meeting statement. Nonetheless, recent indicators point to continuing weakness in overall labor market conditions, and the unemployment rate remains elevated.
There are significant downside risks to the economic outlook, including strains in global financial markets, it warned.
Charles Evans, president of the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank, dissented because he wanted the central bank to ease policy at this meeting, while the three officials who had voted against an easing in September supported the consensus.
That we don't have the dissension from the hawks is encouraging and suggests there might be support for more quantitative easing at some point, if necessary, said Gary Thayer, chief macro strategist at Wells Fargo Advisors in St. Louis, Missouri. It leaves the door open for more easing.
NO CLEAR SIGNALS
Still, the Fed was silent on whether it was considering the possibility of further bond purchases and provided no insight into the status of discussions on overhauling its communications policies. Officials had been debating both courses of action in the lead up to the meeting.
As usual, the central bank simply kept its options open, reiterating that it was prepared to adjust its balance sheet as needed to foster recovery.
U.S. stocks held earlier gains after the statement was released, while prices for 10-year Treasury notes slipped and the dollar trimmed losses against the euro.
Analysts will get more clarity on the Fed's outlook for the economy when the central bank releases quarterly economic forecasts at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT). Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will hold a news conference shortly afterward.
The central bank's debate over the course of policy comes against a troubled global backdrop and with the U.S. economy far from full health.
Greece's call for a referendum on the latest euro zone debt deal dashed hopes Europe had finally come to grips with its debt crisis, sending global equity markets into a tailspin.
The U.S. recovery, for its part, remains anemic and could be knocked off course if Europe fails to quell its crisis, a concern the Fed alluded to.
A report on Wednesday showed U.S. private-sector payrolls expanded by 110,000 workers in October, not enough to signal a robust hiring revival, while data on Tuesday showed growth in the manufacturing sector slowed to a crawl.
The economy grew at a 2.5 percent annual pace in the third quarter, a significant improvement over the second quarter's 1.3 percent increase but still too soft to put a dent in the nation's 9.1 percent unemployment rate.
HOUSING BACK IN PLAY?
Faced with a still-weak recovery, the Fed in September embarked on a program to sell $400 billion in short-term Treasuries and invest the money in longer-dated bonds, an effort to keep long-term rates down.
It also dipped back into the mortgage market by reinvesting proceeds of its real estate bond holdings back into MBS.
Those actions followed an already aggressive series of steps to try to lift the economy. The central bank slashed benchmark interest rates to effectively zero in December 2008 and expanded its balance sheet to a record $2.8 trillion.
More recently, some officials have hinted at the possibility of expanding the central bank's presence in the mortgage market. It has already bought some $1.25 trillion in MBS.