September 22, 2021

Optimistic Fed Outlines an End to Its Stimulus

Mr. Bernanke, offering new details, said the central bank intends to scale down gradually its monthly purchases of Treasury securities and mortgage-backed bonds beginning later this year and ending when the unemployment rate hits 7 percent, which the Fed expects to happen by the middle of next year.

The central bank would then take several more years to unwind the rest of its extraordinary stimulus campaign, slowly raising short-term interest rates from essentially zero to more normal levels after the jobless rate has fallen to 6.5 percent or lower.

He emphasized, however, that the timing of the retreat depends on the health of the economy; if growth falters, the central bank would slow, or even reverse, the process. The expectations of Fed officials for the next several years, published Wednesday, are more optimistic than the consensus of private forecasters.

Pulling back “would basically say that we’ve had a relatively decent economic outcome in terms of sustained improvement in growth and unemployment,” Mr. Bernanke said. “If things are worse, we will do more. If things are better, we will do less.”

Mr. Bernanke’s comments, which followed a two-day meeting of the Fed’s policy-making committee, appeared to disappoint investors on Wall Street who had hoped that the central bank would do more for longer. Stocks fell, with the broad Standard Poor’s 500-stock index dropping 1.39 percent; interest rates rose.

The impact on the economy will take longer to judge. The Fed’s goal is to pull back as the economy gains strength so its departure is barely felt, like a parent who lets go of a bike at the moment a child is ready to ride. But the Fed has removed its hands too soon several times in recent years. On the other side of the equation, the central bank, at some point, runs the risk of pushing too hard for too long, which can also cause crashes.

Gennadiy Goldberg, an analyst at TD Securities, described the market’s reaction as “emblematic of the lumpy path toward normalization,” illustrating the limits of the Fed’s ability to control the way that the economy will respond to its retreat.

The housing market is an example. The Fed, deciding last year that it needed to do more, began to buy mortgage bonds in an effort to drive down borrowing costs. The lower rates spurred a wave of refinancing and home buying. But now, as the recovery gains momentum and the Fed signals that it plans to pull back, interest rates are beginning to rise and mortgage refinancing is beginning to wane.

Mr. Bernanke said on Wednesday that the rate increases were a “good thing,” a sign that the economy is returning to health.

But Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said the Fed still runs the risk of withdrawing its extra support for the economy too soon.

“Later in the cycle, we will be happy to take that view too,” Mr. Shepherdson wrote Wednesday. “But not now, and it is very odd coming from a Fed chairman who has placed so much emphasis on the role of housing in the recovery. We do not think the market is yet ready to absorb higher rates.”

The Fed, in a statement released after the meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, sounded notes of increased optimism about the economy, but unusually, the statement did not describe the bond-buying timeline. Mr. Bernanke said he had been “deputized” to share the details at the news conference.

The statement said that the economy was expanding “at a moderate pace” and that the job market was improving. Most significantly, it noted that risks to growth had “diminished since last fall,” an important assertion because the Fed has been trying in part to shield the economy from the consequences of reductions in federal spending. Those consequences have been milder than expected.

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