WASHINGTON — The U.S. Federal Reserve signalled Wednesday that the weak economy likely will keep prices in check despite growing concerns that the trillions it’s pumping into the financial system will ignite inflation.
Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues held a key bank lending rate at a record low of between zero and 0.25 per cent, and pledged again to keep it there for “an extended period” to help brace activity going forward.
Even though energy and other commodity prices have risen recently, the Fed said inflation will remain “subdued for some time.” This new language sought to ease Wall Street’s concerns that the Fed’s aggressive actions to revive the economy will spur inflation later on.
The Fed also decided to maintain existing programs intended to drive down rates on mortgages and other consumer debt. Instead, the central bank again reserved the right to make changes if economic conditions warrant.
The Fed in March launched a US$1.2-trillion effort to drive down interest rates to try to revive lending and get Americans to spend more freely again. It said it would spend up to $300 billion to buy long-term government bonds over six months and boost its purchases of mortgage securities. So far, the Fed has bought about $177.5 billion in Treasury bonds.
The Fed is on track to buy up to $1.25 trillion worth of securities issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by the end of this year. Nearly $456 billion worth of those securities have been purchased.
Fed policy-makers noted that the “pace of economic contraction is slowing” and that conditions in financial markets have “generally improved in recent months.” That observation about the recession was stronger than after the Fed’s last meeting in April.
Economists predict the economy is sinking in the April-June quarter but not nearly as much as it had in the prior six months, which marked the worst performance in 50 years. The economy is contracting at a pace of between one and three per cent, according to various projections.
Fed policy-makers said its forceful actions, along with President Barack Obama’s stimulus of tax cuts and increased government spending will contribution to a “gradual ”return to economic growth.
Bernanke has predicted the recession will end later this year. Some analysts say the economy will start growing again as soon as the July-September quarter.
Fed policy-makers noted that consumer spending has shown signs of stabilizing but remains constrained by ongoing job losses, falling home values and hard-to-get credit.
Even after the recession ends, the recovery is likely to be tepid, which will push unemployment higher.
The nation’s unemployment rate — now at 9.4 per cent — is expected to keep climbing into 2010. Acknowledging that the jobless rate is going to climb over 10 per cent, President Barack Obama said Tuesday he’s not satisfied with the progress his administration has made on the economy. He defended his recovery package but said the aid must get out faster.
Some analysts say the rate could rise as high as 11 per cent by the next summer before it starts to decline. The highest rate since the Second World War was 10.8 per cent at the end of 1982.
The weak economy has put a damper on inflation.
Consumer prices inched up 0.1 per cent in May, but are down 1.3 per cent over the last 12 months, the weakest annual showing since the 1950s. The Fed suggested companies won’t be in any position to jack up prices given cautious consumers, big production cuts at factories and the weak employment climate.