Two top Fed officials say easy money still needed

CHICAGO Thu May 19, 2011 4:47pm EDT

A man walks in front of the U.S. Federal Reserve building in Washington, June 24, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

A man walks in front of the U.S. Federal Reserve building in Washington, June 24, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. labor market is improving, but not at a fast enough pace to require the Federal Reserve to reverse its super-easy money any time soon, two top Fed officials said on Thursday.

The economy has "a considerable way to go" before it meets the Fed's dual mandate of full employment and price stability, New York Federal Reserve Bank President William Dudley said.

While rising headline inflation figures are "troublesome," Dudley told students in New Paltz, New York, overreacting by raising interest rates would risk "bad consequences" for economic activity and employment.

Chicago Fed President Charles Evans, who, like Dudley, is known for his dovish views on fighting inflation, echoed that sentiment in Chicago, telling a business group that still-high unemployment is keeping inflation under wraps.

Moderate economic growth will trim the unemployment rate, which was 9 percent in April, only slowly, Evans said. Inflation will crest this year at between 2 percent and 2.5 percent before returning to below the Fed's informal 2 percent target, he said.

New information, such as stronger-than-expected GDP growth or evidence that wage pressures are boosting inflation, could force the Fed to reassess its policy, Evans said.

"Contemplating such adjustments in advance will help prepare us for the eventual time when a change in the stance of monetary policy will be necessary," he said. "Despite recent improvements to the outlook, we are not yet at that point."

The Fed has kept interest rates near zero since December 2008. By June, it will have bought $2.3 trillion in long-term securities to bolster the recovery by pushing borrowing rates still lower.

Dudley and Evans, both considered among the Fed's strongest doves, said recent soft economic data is unlikely to persist, as is a recent commodity-price-driven increase in inflation.

They are both voters this year on the Fed's policy-setting committee, and their views mirror those of Chairman Ben Bernanke, who shortly after the Fed's last policy-setting meeting in April signaled he was in no hurry to tighten policy.

Evans did suggest the central bank may signal a change of heart later this year.

Asked whether the Fed could by year's end start letting maturing securities roll off its balance sheet, Evans said it "will be a point of discussion."

Any decision will depend on the pace of economic growth and the inflation outlook, he said, and doing so would only be a first step in the tightening process.

"It is not one that demands action within a timeframe after that, but I think once that begins, markets will start to wonder about what we are doing."

Other Fed officials, such as Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota, have made the case that interest rates should rise by year's end, given improvements in employment and inflation compared with last year.

That view appears to be in the minority.

Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher, one of the Fed's most strident inflation hawks, said on Thursday he was still not sure when might be the right time to begin pulling back on the stimulus.

High gasoline prices are dampening U.S. economic growth, he said, adding, "(The economy) is gathering steam, but robust is not a word I would use."

But Fisher, speaking in the Texas border town of McAllen, did indicate he already felt the central bank should not do any more (to stimulate the economy) and indeed, had gone a bit too far.

"We've gone from too little liquidity to too much," Fisher said.

(With reporting by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa in McAllen, Texas, Kristina Cooke in New Paltz, NY and Middletown, NY; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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