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Fed Was Divided Over Mortgage Program

Amid uncertainties about strength of the budding recovery, Federal Reserve policymakers last month were conflicted over whether to expand or cut back a program intended to drive down mortgage rates and prop up the housing market, according to a document released Wednesday.

In the end, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues agreed to slow down the pace of a $1.25 trillion program to buy mortgage securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Instead of wrapping up the purchases by the end of this year, the Fed said it would do so .

But minutes of the Fed's closed-door deliberations on Sept 22-23, revealed some members thought "an increase" in the mortgage securities buying program could help the economy recover more quickly. Another member believed "a reduction" was warranted because the recovery was showing signs of picking up.

The minutes don't identify speakers by name, but rather seek to provide a more detailed account of the Fed's discussions.

The central bank last month also agreed to slow down purchases of $200 billion in debt from Fannie and Freddie, although there were no fractured thoughts on that action.

At the same time, the Fed held its key bank lending rate at a record low near zero. It pledged to hold it there for an "extended period" to nurture the recovery. Fed policymakers "judged that the costs of growth turning out to be weaker than anticipated could be relatively high," according to the minutes.

The Fed left open the possibility of expanding or scaling back its programs depending how economic and financial conditions unfold.

Among the issues on policymakers' minds was how the economy will hold up once government supports — including President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package of tax cuts and increased government spending — fade.

Fed policymakers "expressed considerable uncertainty about the likely strength of the upturn once those supports were withdrawn or their effects waned," according to the minutes.

The housing market led the country into recession. It needs to get back on stronger footing for the national economy to return to full health. Home sales have firmed, helped by low mortgage rates and an $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers, Fed officials noted. That credit is scheduled to expire at the end of November.

Another concern is how consumers — whose spending accounts for 70 percent of all economic activity — will hold up in the months ahead given job cuts, the loss of wealth from housing and stocks hit by the recession, and hard-to-get credit.

Households still face "considerable headwinds," the minutes said.

Not only are consumers likely to be cautious spenders, but businesses indicated they would be "cautious in hiring and investing even as demand for their products picked up," according to the minutes.

Against this backdrop, "the economic recovery was likely to be quite restrained," and the labor market will log "only a slow improvement," Fed officials believed.

The nation's unemployment rate — now at a 26-year high of 9.8 percent — will drop to 9.25 percent by the end of 2010, the Fed said. It will fall to about 8 percent by the end of 2011.

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