WASHINGTON Even as consensus built within the Federal Reserve in June about the likely need to begin pulling back on economic stimulus measures soon, many officials wanted more reassurance the employment recovery was on solid ground before a policy retreat.
Financial markets have largely converged on September as the probable start of a reduction in the pace of the U.S. central bank's $85 billion in monthly bond purchases, but minutes of the Fed's June meeting released on Wednesday suggested that might not be a sure bet.
"Several members judged that a reduction in asset purchases would likely soon be warranted," the minutes said. But they added that "many members indicated that further improvement in the outlook for the labor market would be required before it would be appropriate to slow the pace of asset purchases."
Wall Street welcomed the Fed's reticence about the end of asset buys, with stock prices briefly moving into positive territory after the minutes were released. U.S. Treasury bond prices also moved higher.
"Everybody seems to have their own opinion on when tapering should start. I think it's maybe more uncertain than before. Most had expected September might be a good starting point. This throws a lot more doubt on that timeframe," said Kim Rupert, managing director of fixed income analysis at Action Economics in San Francisco.
Global investors have recently recovered from a mild bout of panic sparked when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke laid out a roadmap after the June meeting for an end to so-called quantitative easing. He said the central bank would likely curtail bond purchases later this year and bring them to a halt by the middle of next year.
Financial market fears have been allayed in part by a chorus of Fed officials who have sought to reassure traders that the end of asset buys will not lead to imminent interest rate hikes.
"Many members indicated that decisions about the pace and composition of asset purchases were distinct from decisions about the appropriate level of the federal funds rate," the minutes said.
Whether the markets have fully gotten the message is not entirely clear; the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note has risen a full percentage point in just two months and stands close to its highest levels since 2011.
This has already slowed activity in the mortgage market, which had been key to the recent economic rebound.
The Fed's June 18-19 meeting came before the latest government report on U.S. employment, which showed a robust gain of 195,000 jobs in June and upward revisions to prior months. The jobless rate was steady at 7.6 percent.
At the meeting, some Fed officials worried not only about the outlook for employment, but the pace of economic growth as well, the minutes showed. Many economists believe the economy grew at less than a 1 percent annual rate in the second quarter, although most look for a pick-up in the second half of the year.
"Some (officials) added that they would ... need to see more evidence that the projected acceleration in economic activity would occur, before reducing the pace of asset purchases," the minutes said.
Of the Fed policymakers who argued it would be wise to curtail bond purchases soon, two thought it should be done "to prevent the potential negative consequences of the program from exceeding its anticipated benefits."
The minutes indicated Bernanke was tasked with providing a roadmap on monetary policy at his post-meeting news conference, but they provided few of the details that the chairman offered.
A summary of economic projections provided alongside the minutes said about half of the Fed's 19 policymakers wanted to bring the bond-buying program to a halt by the end of this year.
But many others thought it would be appropriate to continue the purchases into next year.
The summary did not distinguish between the view of the 12 voting members of the Fed's policy panel and the other seven officials.