WRAPUP 1-Hawk and dove, two Fed officials see steady cuts to QE3

WINCHESTER, Va./DETROIT Tue Feb 4, 2014 3:58pm EST

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WINCHESTER, Va./DETROIT Feb 4 (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve will likely continue to cut its massive bond-buying program by $10 billion at each meeting unless the economy veers sharply from expectations, two top Fed officials from opposite ends of the policy spectrum said on Tuesday.

But the two policymakers, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans and Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker, disagreed on how long rates should stay low.

Lacker, whose concern with the threat of inflation marks him as a hawk, called for a rate rise in early 2015. Evans, a policy dove focused on the threat of high unemployment, said he preferred to wait until "well into" 2015.

Those differences signal what may be the biggest debate at the Fed's next scheduled policy meeting, in March: how to tweak so-called forward guidance for short-term interest rates. The meeting will be the first run by new Fed Chair Janet Yellen.

"We are going to have a lot of conversations about that," Evans said. "We've had conversations already."

HIGH HURDLE

The Fed has used near-zero rates since December 2008 and trillions of dollars of bond-buying to keep borrowing costs down and pull the economy out of the aftermath of the 2007-2009 financial crisis.

Citing an improved outlook for jobs, the U.S. central bank has started to trim its stimulus by reducing asset purchases by $10 billion at each of its last two policy meetings.

A dismal December U.S. jobs report and a rout in emerging markets as the Fed signaled that its wind-down of the bond-buying program will continue had raised some expectations of a change of heart at the world's most powerful central bank.

Evans, who does not have a vote on the Fed's policy-setting panel this year but nevertheless is seen as an influential force in discussion, signaled little patience with such a view.

"With the better sustainable growth that we've seen recently - the employment numbers have been good, unemployment has come down - I think it's the right time and approach to moderately reduce our asset purchase pace," he told reporters after a speech in Detroit. "I think it's probably a high hurdle to deviate from that $10 billion pace over the next several meetings," he said, adding that the wind down should not come as a surprise to world financial markets.

Evans' words echoed those of his hawkish counterpart at the Richmond Fed, who earlier in the day said U.S. stocks had performed well looking at the past year and recent moves likely reflected a downward adjustment in expectations for growth.

"I think the hurdle ought to remain pretty high for pausing in tapering," Lacker, who has long opposed the aggressive stimulus, told reporters. Like Evans, Lacker does not vote on Fed policy this year.

"We linked the asset purchase programs to significant improvement in the outlook for labor market conditions, that has definitely occurred, and I don't see financial market developments as having affected the outlook for labor market conditions materially at this point."

The Fed last week trimmed its monthly asset-purchase program, known as QE3 because it is the Fed's third round of quantitative easing, to $65 billion.

Policymakers will not meet again until March. Lacker said he expected the current pace of a $10 billion reduction every meeting to continue and played down the chance of a bigger move.

Weak U.S. data pushed the benchmark S&P 500 index into its worst single-day drop in seven months on Monday and MSCI's benchmark index for emerging market stocks hit its lowest level since August.

Lacker, who is among the more hawkish of the Fed's 17 current policymakers, said markets might be coming in line with his view that economic growth would slow this year to "a little above" 2 percent, citing muted spending by consumers and businesses and modest expected labor productivity.

"I think maybe now (they are) revising down their sense of how much momentum the second half is really providing us," he said in response to a question.

Lacker's forecast is at the low end of predictions, of between 2.2 percent and 3.3 percent GDP growth, made in December by Fed policymakers. Inflation, Lacker said, will rise back to the Fed's 2-percent target in the next year or two, and the Fed will probably need to start raising rates in early 2015.

Evans, one of the Fed's most dovish policymakers, was more optimistic on growth, but less so on inflation. Though he sees better momentum coming into 2014, he said he is nervous about the prospect of inflation taking several more years to reach the 2-percent goal.

Meanwhile unemployment, at 6.7 percent, is still well above the 5 percent to 5.25 percent rate he sees as normal.

"I currently expect that low inflation and still-high unemployment will mean that the short-term policy rate will remain near zero well into 2015," he said.

In a formulation of forward rate guidance that Evans himself had a hand in crafting, the Fed currently promises to keep rates low until well past the time that inflation falls to 6.5 percent, especially if inflation stays below 2 percent.

Once the jobless rate falls to 6.5 percent, he said, there could be "modest" adjustments to that promise, including deleting any reference to a particular level of unemployment.

"I think what's most important is that inflation begins to go back up to 2 percent before too long," Evans said.

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