WASHINGTON - Federal Reserve policymakers appear less inclined to take further action to stimulate the economy.
Minutes released Tuesday showed members of the Fed's policymaking committee spent little time at their March 13 meeting discussing the possibility of purchasing more bonds as a way to drive down long-term interest rates and promote more borrowing and spending.
The minutes also showed that only "a couple" of members expressed support for bond purchases, given that the economy is showing signs of improvement. At the previous meeting, there was support from "a few" members for more bond purchases.
The Fed currently has 10 voting members.
Wall Street appeared disappointed by signs that the Fed is moving away from further efforts to stimulate the economy. Traders reacted by selling stocks and, more tellingly, bonds. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.30 per cent from 2.16 per cent. A bond's yield moves in the opposite direction of its price.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell as much as 133 points and ended the day at 13,199, a decline of 65 points.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, the Fed has completed two bond-purchase programs that have helped to drive down rates on mortgages and other loans. They were intended to encourage lending.
"Even though Fed officials remain cautious about the economic outlook, there is little, if any, support for any new (bond-buying) program," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, in a note to clients.
David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors, put it more bluntly: "More bond buying may still be on the table, but just barely."
Opponents are worried that more bond purchases could stoke inflation. Consumers are already paying higher prices for gasoline.
After its March 13th meeting, the Fed sketched a slightly sunnier view of the economy. Members pointed to strong hiring gains from December through February. Employers added an average of 245,000 jobs a month from December through February. The unemployment rate has fallen from 9.1 per cent in August to 8.3 per cent in February.
Still, they noted in the minutes that there have been similar bursts of hiring in the past two years that ended up fading. Members said the Fed's policies are still needed to help the recovery and stuck with their plan to keep short-term interest rates at record lows until at least late 2014.
The Fed is concerned that the recovery could falter, as it did last year. Americans aren't receiving meaningful pay increases. Gas prices are high. And Europe's debt crisis could weigh on the U.S. economy.
Most economists don't think Fed officials will change their interest-rate policy at the next meeting on April 24-25.
But pressure could build for the Fed to begin raising rates sooner if the pace of economic growth picks up.
U.S. consumers boosted their spending in February by the most in seven months, raising expectations that the economy grew at a stronger pace in the first quarter the year. The Commerce Department will release its growth estimate for the January-March quarter on April 27.
Many people are more confident in the economy, despite stagnant wages and higher gas prices. The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Survey index rose last month to its highest level since February 2011.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said the combination of modest economic growth and rapid declines in unemployment is something of a puzzle. Normally, it takes roughly 4 per cent annual growth to lower the rate by 1 percentage point over a year.
Bernanke cautioned that he doesn't expect the unemployment rate to keep falling at its current pace without much stronger growth and more robust hiring.