The easy-money punch bowl may soon fill more slowly.
The Federal Reserve is likely to begin tapering its economic stimulus this week despite mixed data on the economy and job market recently, according to most economists surveyed by USA TODAY.
If they're right, it could be the first in a series of decisions unwinding the extraordinary measures the Fed has taken over five years to spur a recession-ravaged economy.
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.
The purchases are aimed at holding down long-term interest rates, thus increasing borrowing and investing in order to create jobs and lower unemployment.
Since the Fed began buying 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.
"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 supported analysts who 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.