Fed meeting minutes reveal sharp divisions

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke jolted investors in Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke jolted investors in June when he said the Fed would likely slow its bond buying this year if the economy continues to improve. (June 19, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Federal Reserve officials seem far from a consensus on the question that's consumed investors for months: When will the Fed slow its bond purchases?

Minutes of their June 18-19 policy meeting show many of the 19 officials felt the job market's improvement would have to be sustained before the Fed would scale back its bond purchases, which have helped support spending and growth, lifted stocks and kept mortgage rates near record lows. Many thought the purchases should extend into 2014, according to a summary of economic forecasts that are released with the minutes.

Still, several thought a slowdown in purchases could start soon.

And one faction favored an aggressive timetable: About half the "participants" favored ending the bond purchases late this year -- months earlier than chairman Ben Bernanke has indicated. Participants include voting and nonvoting officials on the Fed's policy committee.

The divisions revealed Wednesday by the minutes reflect the difficulty investors have had deciphering the Fed's intentions.

Bernanke has carved out a measured stance: At a news conference after last month's meeting, he said the Fed would likely slow its bond purchases later this year and end them around mid-2014 if the economy continued to strengthen. The Fed has been buying $85 billion in bonds each month since late last year.

Most investors and analysts interpreted Bernanke's remarks to mean the Fed would likely announce after its September meeting that it will scale back its bond buying.

Many Fed officials side with Bernanke's approach. But the minutes were a reminder that some officials feel Bernanke's timetable for slowing the bond buying is too cautious.

Some analysts think the Fed, in the end, will back the chairman's notion of slowing the purchases later this year -- if the outlook for the economy continues to strengthen.

The minutes suggest that a slowdown in the bond buying in September "is not quite a done deal," said Michael Hanson, U.S. economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. "For a taper in September, we may still need to see some more improvement in the economy."

Yet even the analysts differ.

Dana Saporta, an economist at Credit Suisse, said she still thinks the Fed will start pulling back its purchases in September.

The strong jobs report for June, which was released after the Fed met last month, "went at least some way towards satisfying those who were looking for more improvement in labor market conditions," Saporta said.

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