Fed to Keep Record Low Rates

FOMC promises to maintain rates through mid-2013 in effort to spark U.S. economy.

The Federal Reserve pledged for the first time to keep its benchmark interest rate at a record low at least through mid-2013 in a bid to revive the flagging recovery after a worldwide stock rout.

The Federal Open Market Committee discussed a range of policy tools to bolster the economy and said it is “prepared to employ these tools as appropriate,” it said in a statement today in Washington. Three members of the FOMC dissented, preferring to maintain the pledge to keep rates low for an “extended period.”

The decision represents the biggest effort since November to spark the U.S. economy and revive confidence while stopping short of initiating a third round of large-scale asset purchases. Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and his colleagues acted after reports showed the economy was slowing and an unprecedented downgrade to the U.S. credit rating sent stocks tumbling from Sydney to New York.

The Fed offered a dimmer view of the economy than it did in the last statement in late June. “Economic growth so far this year has been considerably slower than the committee had expected,” it said. The Fed also said it expects a “somewhat slower pace of recovery over coming quarters,” adding that “downside risks to the economic outlook have increased.”

Stocks pared gains and Treasuries declined after the statement. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index rose 0.6 percent to 1,126.21 at 2:25 p.m. in New York after advancing as much as 2.9 percent.

 

Target Rate
The Fed left its target for the federal funds rate in a range of zero to 0.25 percent, where it’s been since December 2008. It said it will maintain its policy of reinvesting maturing securities without saying for how long.

The vote was 7-3. Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Fed, Charles Plosser of Philadelphia and Narayana Kocherlakota of the Minneapolis Fed all dissented. It was the first time under Bernanke that three FOMC members dissented.

The Fed’s decision came after Standard & Poor’s unprecedented downgrade of the U.S. credit rating on Aug. 5 sent share prices tumbling on concern a global economic slowdown will deepen. Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service affirmed their top grades for U.S. debt.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index tumbled 6.7 percent yesterday in New York, its biggest decline since December 2008. The drop has wiped out all the gains in stocks since Nov. 3, 2010, when the Fed announced it would buy $600 billion of government bonds, its second round of asset purchases.

Treasuries surged yesterday as investors sought the safety of government debt. Yields on 10-year notes fell 22 basis points, or 0.22 percentage point, to 2.32 percent, the least since January 2009.

Debt Woes
Europe’s debt woes added to the market turmoil. Central bankers and finance ministers from the Group of Seven nations pledged Aug. 7 to “take all necessary measures to support financial stability and growth.”

The next day, the European Central Bank began buying Italian and Spanish bonds in its riskiest attempt yet to battle the continent’s sovereign debt crisis.

While U.S. inflation rates have risen, they are still below the Fed’s informal target range of 1.7 to 2 percent. A measure of consumer-price gains, stripping out food and energy, stood at 1.3 percent for the 12 months ending in June. That’s up from 0.9 percent for the 12 months ending December.

Bernanke told Congress on July 13 that the Fed was prepared to buy more Treasury bonds if the economy appeared in danger of stalling or if the threat of deflation looked like it was going to re-emerge, while repeating his forecast for a pickup in growth in the second half of the year.

Recent Data
Recent economic data have cast doubt on his outlook.

Gross domestic product expanded at a 1.3 percent annual pace in the second quarter, less than forecast by economists, a July 29 government report showed. The economy almost stalled in the prior quarter, growing at a 0.4 percent pace, the weakest three-month period since the recovery began in June 2009.

The same report showed that the recession was about 25 percent deeper than previously estimated, leaving GDP short of its 2007 peak and the economy more vulnerable to another contraction.

Consumers cut spending in June for the first time in almost two years, the Commerce Department said Aug. 2.

“The consumer environment remains very tough,” Michael Polk, chief executive officer of Atlanta-based Newell Rubbermaid Inc., said on a conference call with analysts on July 29. He said a “difficult” U.S. economy was among the reasons the maker of Rubbermaid containers and Sharpie pens had cut its full-year profit and sales forecasts.

 

Hiring Slows
Hiring has slowed as employers lost confidence in the recovery. Average monthly payroll gains fell to 72,000 in the three months through July, from 215,000 in the prior three months. The jobless rate fell to 9.1 percent in July from 9.2 percent in June as Americans gave up looking for work.

“When we have the kind of combination of sub-par growth, stubbornly high unemployment and a big debt overhang, you need low interest rates,” Carmen Reinhart, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said on Aug. 5.

The housing market has also been a drag on growth as sliding home prices cut into consumer confidence and wealth.

Sales of existing homes, the largest portion of the housing market, totaled 4.77 million on an annualized basis in June, a 34 percent drop from their pre-recession peak in September 2005.

The S&P/Case-Shiller index of property values in 20 cities declined 4.5 percent in May from a year earlier, the most in 18 months, and homeownership at 65.9 percent is at its lowest point since 1998, even as affordability is close to a record high.

 

‘Bouncing Along’
“We’re still in a market that is clearly bouncing along the bottom on housing and new construction,” Christopher M. Connor, chief executive officer of Sherwin-Williams Co., said on a July 21 conference call. The Cleveland-based company, the largest U.S. paint maker, also cut its full-year profit forecast because of rising raw material costs.

Manufacturing, which had been one of the few bright spots in the economy, grew in July at its slowest pace in two years, the Institute for Supply Management said on Aug. 1.

The recovery is sputtering just as the existing fiscal stimulus programs expire and the federal government moves toward reducing budget deficits.

The debt deal signed by President Barack Obama on Aug. 2 would cut $2.4 trillion or more off budget deficits over 10 years.

 

Fiscal Stimulus
The expiration of current fiscal stimulus programs will slice 1.5 percentage points off economic growth next year, according to economists at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Deutsche Bank Securities.

Not all companies are suffering. Morton’s Restaurant Group Inc., the Chicago-based operator of 83 upscale steakhouses, said July 28 that second-quarter revenue rose 11 percent, with customers spending more money as business dining and travel increased.


 

Bloomberg News

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