Jitters that financial strains may derail the U.S. economic recovery mean the Federal Reserve will be in no rush to end its ultra-low interest rates, comments by officials of the U.S. central bank suggested on Wednesday.
One senior Fed official went as far as acknowledging that falling inflation could spur the central bank to further ease financial conditions, and another policy maker would not rule out additional measures to stimulate growth.
When asked whether lower inflation would prompt the Fed to try to push borrowing costs even lower, Atlanta Federal Reserve President Dennis Lockhart told a Rotary Club audience: It's appropriate to think about what we would do under a deflationary scenario. At this point, no specific planning in my view is occurring but discussion in all likelihood will be on the agenda.
The president of the Chicago Fed, Charles Evans, said the central bank had provided a tremendous amount of accommodation, but he also would not rule out further action to stimulate the economy.
I'm going to be looking at the circumstances, and if we need to adjust policy in either direction, I am going to be responding, he told business news channel CNBC.
The Fed cut interest benchmark interest rates to near zero percent in December 2008. With no room left to cut rates further, it continued efforts to boost economic activity by flooding the financial system with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of credit.
Financial market strains stemming from the European debt crisis and weak reports about U.S. housing and employment in recent weeks have led some analysts to anticipate the Fed would need to spur the tepid recovery with additional actions to promote growth. If it decided to take further action, the Fed would likely buy additional Treasury or other securities.
Lockhart and Evans are generally considered to be in the mainstream of thinking at the U.S. central bank. Neither, however, is a voter on the Fed's interest-rate setting panel this year.
But Comments by a member of the Fed's Board of Governors, Elizabeth Duke, suggest some trepidation at the Washington-based board about the strength of the recovery. Duke typically focuses on banking issues at and rarely comments on the outlook for the economy or policy.
Duke said the job market recovery was likely to proceed only slowly due to sluggish economic expansion. U.S. gross domestic product rose at a modest 2.7 percent annual rate in the first quarter.
At that speed of recovery, you are not going to create jobs very quickly, she said, in response to questions at a banking conference in Columbus, Ohio. It is going to be, I think, a long period for jobs to recover.
Unemployment has hovered near 10 percent for several months, and analysts expect a report on Friday to show a big drop in employment, although private hiring is seen moving higher.
The Fed last week renewed its promise to hold interest rates exceptionally low for an extended period, saying the recovery is proceeding.
The economy has expanded for three quarters in a row, and most analysts had until recently been expecting the Fed's next move to be a tightening of financial conditions through a combination of raising interest rates and sales of mortgage-related debt the Fed bought to stimulate lending.
The Chicago Fed's Evans said the economic recovery is definitely on, with growth expected at 3.5 percent this year.
But he said he expects inflation may run below his guideline of 2 percent for the next three years or more and said unemployment would stay high for some time.
It's going to be a number of years before (unemployment) is going to get down to any type of rate that we might almost say is acceptable, he said.
Taken together, low inflation and high unemployment mean that the Fed's current accommodative monetary policy is still needed, he said.
(Additional reporting by Ann Saphir in Chicago and Jim Leckrone in Columbus, Ohio; Writing by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Leslie Adler)