WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve offered a mixed message on the U.S. economy Wednesday: Growth is strengthening, and the unemployment rate is steadily falling. Yet by some measures, the job market remains subpar.
A statement the Fed issued after a two-day policy meeting suggested it wants to see further improvement before it starts raising its key short-term interest rate. It offered no clearer hint of when it will raise that rate.
Instead, the Fed reiterated its plan to keep short-term rates low “for a considerable time” after ends its monthly bond purchases. The Fed said it will slow the pace of its purchases by another $10 billion to $25 billion a month. The purchases, which have been intended to keep long-term borrowing rates low, are set to end in October.
Most economists think a rate increase is about a year away despite a strengthening economy. The government estimated Wednesday that the economy grew at a fast 4 percent annual rate last quarter.
On Friday, the government is expected to report a sixth straight month of healthy 200,000-plus job growth. The unemployment rate has dropped to 6.1 percent. At the start of last year, it was 7.9 percent.
The Fed revised the wording of its previous statement to note that while the unemployment rate has dropped steadily, the job market is still struggling in other ways. It didn’t specify what it meant. But Chair Janet Yellen expressed concern to Congress this month about stagnant wage growth, many part-time workers who can’t find full-time jobs and the proportion of the unemployed who have been out of work for more than six months.
The Fed also tweaked its statement to say inflation had risen closer to its 2 percent target. The statement said concerns that inflation would persistently run below the Fed’s 2 percent target had “diminished somewhat.” But it expressed no concerns about the slight acceleration in prices.
The Fed’s action Wednesday was approved on a 9-1 vote, with Charles Plosser, president of the Fed’s Philadelphia regional bank, dissenting. The statement said Plosser objected to reiterating that the Fed’s key short-term rate would likely remain at a record low near zero “for a considerable time” after its bond purchases end.
Plosser felt that language did not “reflect the considerable economic progress that has been made,” the statement said.
Economists said the Fed’s statement showed that Yellen remains firmly in control of the policy committee even though Plosser and other officials who are more concerned about inflation are starting to express their views more openly. This group is known as hawks. Yellen’s camp, which is more focused on maximizing employment, is known as doves.
Another hawk, Richard Fisher, president of the Fed’s Dallas regional bank, wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal this week that suggested it was time for the Fed to start moving away from its ultra-low rate policies.
David Jones, chief economist at DMK Advisors, said a new phrase in the Fed statement about a “significant underutilization of labor resources” showed that Yellen’s more dovish views held sway in the discussions.