March 5, 2021

Its Forecast Dim, Fed Vows to Keep Rates Near Zero

It is now conventional wisdom among forecasters that the economy will plod along through the end of President Obama’s first term in office. Millions of Americans will not find work. Wages will not rise substantially.

By its action, the Fed is declaring that it, too, sees little prospect of rapid growth and little risk of inflation. Its hope is that the showman’s gesture will spur investment and risk-taking by convincing markets that the cost of borrowing will not rise for at least two years.

The Fed’s statement, with its mix of grim tidings and welcome aid, contributed to wild market oscillations as investors struggled to make sense of the economy and the path ahead. The day ended in a huge upward surge on the New York Stock Exchange — the second busiest day this year after the record volume on Monday, during a deep sell-off — that could not be tallied completely until well after the markets had closed.

The Dow swung as much as 600 points in the wake of the Fed statement, at first sinking over 200 points. But after traders absorbed the decision, they quickly reversed course, and the Dow closed the day up 429 points, or 4 percent, to 11,239.77, as some investors expressed hope that the pledge to keep interest rates low could relieve some of the gloom over the economic outlook.

“The economy is in tough shape and the Fed had a difficult job of showing that they understood that without appearing to be alarmist,” said Steven Lear, who helps to manage a $150 billion fixed-income portfolio for J.P. Morgan Asset Management. “We think that they’ve played that hand about as well as they could.”

The policy announced Tuesday is an incremental step that economists described as unlikely to drive significant growth. The Fed already has held rates near zero since December 2008, and the economy is awash in cheap money. The great impediment, beyond the Fed’s easy reach, is the lack of demand from indebted consumers, nervous businesses and a shrinking public sector.

The Fed demurred, however, from taking stronger steps to aid the struggling economy, a decision that reflected deepening divisions on its policy-making committee, which generally tries to move only by unanimous consent. The vote to promise two more years of low rates passed by a margin of 7 to 3, the first time in almost 20 years that at least three members recorded votes in dissent.

The internal controversy parallels the broader debate in Washington between those pleading for the government to redouble its support for the faltering economy, and those who doubt the utility of additional aid and fear the consequences of the vast efforts already made. The three Fed members in dissent all have expressed concern that the central bank is not paying enough attention to inflation.

The Fed said in a statement that it would continue to consider additional measures to support the economy, but the split vote suggested that the Fed’s chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, may struggle to win sufficient support.

The statement, which includes an assessment of the economy, was a patchwork quilt of discouraging language. The labor market is deteriorating, construction is weak, housing depressed, recovery slow.

“Economic growth so far this year has been considerably slower than the committee had expected,” it said. “The committee now expects a somewhat slower pace of recovery over coming quarters.”

Twenty-five million Americans cannot find full-time work, a number the Fed said would decline “only gradually.”

The Fed is charged by Congress with minimizing unemployment, and increasingly vocal critics have questioned why the central bank is standing still even as the economy shows clear signs of faltering. The modest step announced Tuesday did not satisfy many of those critics.

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