federal reserve

The hope is to bring unemployment below 6.5%. Strategy marks a dramatic change in policy, made easier by low inflation lately.

By Don Lee and Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times
December 13, 2012

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve said it will continue aggressive measures to stimulate the economy and made a major policy shift to focus more directly on boosting the job market.

Fed policymakers said they would keep interest rates at historically low levels until unemployment drops below 6.5%.

It’s likely to keep the Fed’s short-term interest rates at historically low levels well into 2015.

The move marked the first time that Fed policymakers have tied themselves to an explicit unemployment goal. It appeared to end the long-running debate within the central bank over how aggressively to target the nation’s lagging job market.

The jobless figure was 7.7% in November, and the Fed’s new forecast doesn’t see that dropping below 6.5% for about three years.

The decision was made easier by the slow pace of inflation, which remains below 2% on an annual basis. Critics of the Fed’s policies have argued that efforts to stimulate the economy would lead to inflation, but so far, that has not happened, and Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has argued that the risk is much smaller than the dangers posed by high unemployment.

“The conditions now prevailing in the job market represent an enormous waste of human and economic potential,” Bernanke said Wednesday during a news conference after the central bank’s last policy meeting of the year.

Under its new policy, the Fed would let its inflation outlook rise to 2.5% before taking action to curtail it — giving the nation’s employers more time to create jobs.

The move to link interest rate policies directly to the jobless rate is meant to give the public and businesses greater confidence about how long interest rates will remain exceptionally low, and that by itself could act as a kind of stimulus to the economy.

The new push got a warm welcome from both economists and Wall Street.

Economist Bernard Baumohl at the Economic Outlook Group said the previous time frame for action was “self-defeating because it provided no incentive for employers to start spending any time soon to avoid higher interest rates. It just didn’t create any sense of urgency to accelerate investments or increase the rate of hiring.”

The Fed has kept its federal funds rate, which influences rates for credit cards, mortgages and business and other loans, near zero since December 2008. Unemployment has been near 8% or above since early 2009.

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