Fed minutes show officials split on best way to signal when first rate increase might occur

The Associated Press

FILE - This March 14, 2014 file photo shows the Federal Reserve headquarters building in Washington. In the minutes of the Federal Reserve's June 17-18 meeting issued Wednesday, July 9, 2014, Fed officials had differing views on the best way to signal to financial markets when they might raise a key short-term interest rate. They were in broad agreement, however, that their monthly bond buying program will end in October. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

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By MARTIN CRUTSINGER, AP Economics Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal Reserve officials are in broad agreement that they will likely announce an end to their monthly bond buying program in October, bringing to a close the third round of massive bond purchases the central bank has relied upon to boost economic growth following the Great Recession.

Minutes of the Fed's June 17-18 meeting released Wednesday showed officials were in basic agreement that the if the economy continues to improve, the final reduction in bond purchases would total a cut of $15 billion and would be announced at the Fed's Oct. 28-29 meeting.

With that final reduction, the Fed's balance sheet will be close to $4.5 trillion, more than four times the amount of the balance sheet when the financial crisis struck in the fall of 2008. The Fed has purchased Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities as a way to lower long-term interest rates to give the economy a boost.

Fed officials have said they will not immediately start selling off the holdings, a move that could send interest rates rising. But instead will reduce the holdings only gradually.

The minutes showed that the Fed had a lengthy discussion on just how it planned to accomplish that reduction in its balance sheet but no final decisions were made. But the minutes said officials believed it will be important to have a "simple and clear approach" that could be communicated to financial markets and the public.

It said the Fed expected to release a plan later this year "well before the first steps" were taken to start reducing the bond holdings. The Fed's move to begin selling off its holdings could have a significant impact on interest rates.

The minutes showed there was a continuation of a debate central bank officials have been having over how to signal the first move to start raising its benchmark short-term interest rate, which has been at a record low near zero since December 2008.

This discussion featured a range of views split between Fed officials who believed the central bank should communicate its continued concerns that inflation is too low and therefore rates needed to stay low and those who were worried that the economy might rebound in the second half of this year at a faster pace than expected and faster moves to raise rates could be warranted.

In the end, the Fed statement stuck to the current guidance that rates will likely remain low for a "considerable time" after the bond purchases end.

Wall Street had little reaction to the minutes with stocks extending gains in the absence of any strong signal from the Fed that its first hike in short-term rates could come sooner than investors now expect.

The minutes showed that Fed officials discounted the big drop in economic growth in the first three months as a slump that reflected temporary factors. They continued to express optimism that the economy will rebound to healthy growth rates for the rest of this year.

"Fed officials were not overly worried by either the decline in first-quarter GDP or the evidence of a pickup in inflation," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics.

The minutes did reveal that several Fed officials saw developments in Iraq and Ukraine "as posing possible downside risks to global economic activity or potential upside risks to world oil prices."

At its June meeting, the Fed kept policy essentially unchanged, holding its key short-term interest rate at a record low near zero, where it has been since December 2008. It also made a fifth $10 billion reduction in its monthly bond purchases, bringing them down to $35 billion a month. Before the reductions began in December, the purchases, aimed at keeping long-term interest rates low, stood at $85 billion per month.