A USA TODAY survey finds more than 6 in 10 economists say the Fed will cut its $85 billion a month in bond purchases at this week's meeting.
Five years to the week after the darkest days of the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve will take its first step toward unwinding the easy money policies that helped save the global economy, a USA TODAY survey of top economists predicts.
More than 60% of 44 economists say Fed policymakers will dial back their $85 billion in monthly government bond purchases when they meet Tuesday and Wednesday. Almost a third pick either October or December.
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The purchases are aimed at holding down long-term interest rates, thus increasing borrowing and investing in order to create jobs and lower unemployment.
The other major component of the Fed's post-crisis policy has been holding its key interest rate close to zero since 2008, which has kept down short-term rates. More than 80% of the economists in USA TODAY's survey predict the Fed will raise that rate in 2015.
Since the Fed began buying longer-term Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities a year ago, the unemployment rate has fallen to 7.3% from 7.8%. The program also has fueled a stock rally, but raised concerns such as eventual high inflation.
"When they started, they were worried that (economic) growth was very weak and the unemployment rate was starting to rise," says JPMorgan economist Robert Mellman. Now, he says, the jobless rate "is actually coming down fairly quickly."
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke first said in May that the Fed likely would rein in the purchases this year and end them by mid-2014, assuming unemployment falls to 7% by then. His remarks roiled stocks and pushed up bond yields.
Mixed economic data recently prompted some analysts to say the Fed will put off tapering until the economy is on firmer footing.
On the bright side, jobless claims have fallen and measures of manufacturing and service-sector activity rose in August. But employers added a disappointing 169,000 jobs last month, capping a three-month slowdown in job gains. The jobless rate fell because of a sharp drop in the number of people working or looking for work.
Several economists say the middling data will prompt a more modest reduction in bond purchases than the Fed initially intended.
Fifty-two percent of those surveyed said the Fed will trim them by $6 billion to $10 billion, while 32% expect a decrease of $11 billion to $15 billion. Richard Moody, chief economist of Regions Financial, expects a $15 billion cut, less than the $20 billion he anticipated a month ago.
The Fed each month is buying $45 billion in Treasury bonds and $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities.
Seven in 10 of the economists say the Fed initially will reduce the Treasury purchases only or mostly, continuing to heavily buy mortgage bonds to hold down mortgage rates. Since Bernanke first mentioned tapering, 30-year fixed mortgage rates have risen from 3.51% to 4.57% and mortgage applications have declined.
Some economists say the weak reports will delay the tapering entirely.
Paul Edelstein of IHS Global Insight expects it to begin in December. "The labor market is still too uncertain," he says.
Even if the Fed does downsize its purchases Wednesday, most economists say the move is largely priced into stocks and bonds.
Michael Englund, chief economist of Action Economics, says a limited bond-buying cut of about $10 billion could even lift stocks a bit and lower bond yields.