Federal Reserve likely to stay the course

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When Ben Bernanke and cohorts at the Federal Reserve sit down to discuss interest rate policy today, the Federal Open Market Committee is unlikely to up the ante of quantitative easing, especially following a string of slightly better economic releases.

Although this is not an economic recovery that will blow anyone’s hair back, the economy is plodding along. The private sector has added jobs every month in 2010. Unemployment claims filings, while still elevated, have declined consistently from 500,000 to 450,000 over the past month. Second quarter economic growth as measured by gross domestic product was revised lower to 1.6 percent, but not down to the 1.2 percent that had been feared. July showed an uptick in personal spending, and August has delivered better-than-expected news on retail sales and the ISM index of the manufacturing sector.

Given the current state, the Federal Reserve does not have an urgency to throw even more money at the economy. Instead, it can stay the course and take more time to evaluate the unfolding economic story.

Reinvesting the principal payments of existing bond holdings into more Treasury securities — as announced at the August FOMC meeting — is a bridge to more significant steps if they’re needed later. The August announcement helped bring long-term interest rates and fixed mortgage rates lower initially, and will add some restraint to the pace of eventual increases. Expect the Fed to punt any tough decisions to the November FOMC meeting, which is conveniently scheduled just the other side of Election Day.

Economic uncertainty persists, for sure. But even the recent economic readings that have disappointed — industrial production and capacity utilization — have disappointed only because they improved less than expected. But they still showed improvement, even throughout the summer economic swoon. An uninspiring recovery, yes, but hardly the stuff of double-dip recessions.

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