Minutes: Fed could slow bond buys in coming months

WASHINGTON - Members of the Federal Reserve agreed last month that they would likely start reducing their bond purchases in coming months if the U.S. job market improved further. They also weighed the possibility of slowing the purchases even without clear evidence of a strengthening job market.

The Fed's bond purchases have been intended to keep long-term borrowing rates low to spur spending and growth.

The minutes, or written records, of the Oct. 29-30 meeting, released Wednesday, also show that members wrestled with how to assure investors that even after they cut back on the $85 billion a month in bond buys, the Fed still intends to keep its keep short-term rate near record lows.

At the meeting, members made no changes in interest rate policy. But many wanted to better communicate to the public its plans for both slowing its bond purchases and keeping borrowing rates low to encourage spending. The discussion suggests some members are worried that investors could mistakenly assume a slowdown in bond purchases, which have kept long-term rates low, will be followed by an increase in short-term interest rates.

Many Fed officials have stated their desire to keep short-term rates low even after unemployment falls below 6.5 percent, as long as inflation remains low. The minutes said that two officials expressed support for lowering the 6.5 percent threshold. And some suggested that even after the first rate increase, the Fed could assure the public that rates would remain low because economic headwinds were likely to diminish only slowly.

The minutes did not specify when that first reduction in bond purchases might occur. But most economists believe it will not happen at the Fed's next meeting on Dec. 17-18. That's because they generally don't expect the economy and job market will have shown enough improvement by then.

Many economists believe March is the most likely month for the first reduction in bond purchases. That would be Janet Yellen's first meeting as Fed chairman. A Senate committee is expected to approve her nomination on Thursday but the timing of a vote in the full Senate is uncertain.

Ben Bernanke, the current Fed chairman, is expected to step down in January when his term ends.

The minutes showed that Fed policymakers held an unscheduled video conference on Oct. 16 to discuss the impact on financial markets should Congress not raise the borrowing limit. The minutes said that any delay in the government's payments to investors holding Treasury debt would be "potentially catastrophic and thus such a situation should be avoided at all costs."

Congress approved a suspension of the borrowing limit and a temporary budget on Oct. 16, ending the partial government shutdown.

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