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Archive for Monday, December 12, 2011

Fed nearing a plan to clarify direction of rates

December 12, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve under Ben Bernanke has gone further than ever to explain its policies to the public. It’s ready to go further still.

A Fed policy meeting today will likely focus, in part, on an evolving plan to reveal the direction of interest rates more explicitly. The Fed may decide, for example, to regularly update the public on how long it plans to keep short-term rates at record lows.

The new communications strategy could be unveiled as soon as next month.

Most analysts expect no announcements today about the new strategy or any further steps to try to strengthen the economy. They think the Fed wants to delay any new programs, such as additional bond purchases, to see if the economy can continue the modest gains it’s been making.

Still, the U.S. economy remains vulnerable, especially to the impact of the financial crisis and likely recession in Europe. So the Fed is keeping its options open.

It’s already taken numerous unorthodox steps to try to lift the economy. December, for example, will mark three years since it cut its key rate, the federal funds rate, to a record low of between zero and 0.25 percent.

It has also bought more than $2 trillion in government bonds and mortgage-backed securities to try to cut long-term rates and lower borrowing costs.

The hope behind both actions was to embolden consumers and businesses to borrow and spend more. Lower yields on bonds also encourage investors to shift money into stocks, which can boost wealth and spur more spending.

One possibility, should the economy worsen, would be for the Fed to buy more mortgage securities. Doing so could help push down mortgage rates and help boost home purchases. The weak housing market has been slowing the broader economy.

The boldest move left would be a third round of large-scale purchases of Treasurys. But critics say this would raise the risk of future inflation. And many doubt it would help much, because Treasury yields are already near historic lows. Unless Europe’s crisis worsens and spreads, few expect another program of Treasury purchases.

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