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Fed to take a fresh look at the economy

Taking fresh stock of economic and financial conditions, Federal Reserve policymakers are considering whether they need to take additional measures to ease the recession.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Taking fresh stock of economic and financial conditions, Federal Reserve policymakers are considering whether they need to take additional measures to ease the recession.

Most economists are betting there won’t be any major announcements Wednesday at the end of a two-day meeting given the Fed’s bold $1.2 trillion move just last month to revive the economy.

But that was before the Commerce Department reported that the economy shrank at a 6.1 percent pace at the start of this year. Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected a 5 percent annualized decline in the first quarter. The weak economic performance nearly matched the 6.3 percent contraction in the final three months of last year, which was the worst pace in a quarter-century.

And analysts aren’t ruling anything out from the Fed as credit and financial stresses persist and a new potential danger has arisen to the economy in the form of the swine flu outbreak.

“Never say never with these guys. But I don’t think they have a real reason to increase support at this time,” said Michael Feroli, economist at JPMorgan Economics.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues are all but certain to leave the targeted range for its key bank lending rate between zero and 0.25 percent. A decision on interest rates is expected at around 2:15 p.m. ET.

Economists predict the Fed will hold its key rate at that record-low level well into next year, although some would like to see the Fed provide a more explicit commitment on the front. The Fed has been pledging to hold the rate at super-low levels for “an extended period.”

With the Fed’s key rate near rock bottom, policymakers will examine the effectiveness of existing programs to help the economy. They also will weigh whether those initiatives need to be changed or expanded, while keeping options open for new relief measures.

The Fed hopes its various efforts will get banks to lend again, lower interest rates and increase Americans’ appetites to spend, which would help lift the country out of a recession that began in December 2007.

Some analysts said it’s possible — but not likely — the Fed would decide to boost its purchases of government debt beyond the $300 billion announced last month. Others said the Fed might make changes to a consumer lending program that’s gotten off to a rocky start in order to make it attractive to investors.

Much hope is riding on the program called the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, or TALF. It’s been hobbled by rule changes, investor worries about financial privacy and fears that participants might become ensnared in an anti-bailout backlash from the public and Congress. Just $1.7 billion in loans was requested for the second round of funding in April — down from $4.7 billion in March.

Investors use the money to buy newly issued securities backed by auto and student loans, credit cards and other debt. The program will be expanded to include commercial real-estate loans.

On the economic front, the Fed is expected to strike a somewhat less dour note than it did at its mid-March meeting. Policymakers are likely to note some tentative signs that the recession is easing.

Some more hopeful signals emerged Tuesday. The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index rose far more than expected in April, jumping over 12 points to 39.2, the highest level since November. And a housing index showed that home prices dropped sharply in February, but for the first time in 25 months the decline was not a record.

Bernanke has said the recession probably would end this year if the government is successful in repairing broken banking and credit systems.

Before the swine flu outbreak, many analysts were predicting the recession would ease further, with the economy shrinking at a rate of 1 to 2.5 percent in the current quarter.

However, analysts warn that any severe outbreak of the swine flu would not only clobber tourism, food and transportation industries, but crimp spending on other things if consumers get spooked. For now, analysts are hopeful that any economic fallout will be limited and short-lived. But much hinges on the scope of the flu infections and how they affect consumer behavior.

Even if the recession ends this year, the jobless rate — now at a quarter-century high of 8.5 percent — is expected to keep rising and top 10 percent early next year.