NEW YORK The Federal Reserve's ultra-easy monetary policy is appropriate given high unemployment and the headwinds facing the economy, the No. 2 official of the U.S. central bank said on Wednesday, as she left the door open to further action if needed.
Janet Yellen, the Fed's influential vice chair, said that, hypothetically speaking, the central bank has a variety of options were it to engage in further asset purchases, and that the Fed remains "quite willing" to take whatever actions are necessary to achieve its mandate of promoting employment and keeping inflation in check.
Yellen said the economic outlook is particularly uncertain, as she highlighted concerns about unemployment. Still, overall, Yellen said she expects the economic recovery to continue and to strengthen somewhat over time.
She defended the central bank's expectation that it will keep benchmark interest rates near zero through at least late 2014, but said guidance could shift in either direction depending on the economy's performance.
"I consider a highly accommodative policy stance to be appropriate in present circumstances. But considerable uncertainty surrounds the outlook, and I remain prepared to adjust my policy views in response to incoming information," Yellen said in a speech in New York.
"In particular, further easing actions could be warranted if the recovery proceeds at a slower-than-expected pace, while a significant acceleration in the pace of recovery could call for an earlier beginning to the process of policy firming than the FOMC currently anticipates."
The comments from Yellen and two other top U.S. Federal Reserve officials on Wednesday suggest the central bank is on hold as it waits to see whether a modest recovery will accelerate despite some stumbles, or whether additional monetary stimulus will be needed.
St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said a disappointingly weak job market showing in March does not signal the recovery, which had seemed to be gaining momentum, is off track.
"The report was mediocre but it's just one piece of data in the larger mosaic," Bullard told reporters before his institution's annual Homer Jones lecture. "I don't think it changes the outlook appreciably."
Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart said that for the central bank to launch another round of monetary stimulus, the fragile recovery would have to deteriorate.
"I'm somewhat reticent to consider another round of quantitative easing at this time," Lockhart told a press briefing on the sidelines of a conference sponsored by his bank at Stone Mountain, Georgia.
"I view it as a policy that would respond more to a fairly dramatic negative change of direction in the economy," said Lockhart, a 2012 voting member of the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee.
FAR FROM FULL EMPLOYMENT
The Fed's policy setting Federal Open market Committee meets in April but expectations are it will not take new steps then. Economists who predict extra monetary stimulus say the move is unlikely before June.
Market anticipation of the Fed's next move has gyrated from expectation of another bond buying program to anticipation the central bank will take no action and may begin to plan its exit from its ultra-easy stance.
The Fed cut rates to near zero more than three years ago and has bought $2.3 trillion in bonds to boost growth. A program to rebalance its bond holdings to lengthen the average maturity of its holdings - aimed at pushing down longer-term interest rates - comes to an end in June.
Yellen said that if that so-called "Operation Twist" were to end as planned and further actions were not announced, she would not see it as a tightening of policy.
During a question and answer session with the audience, Yellen said she is confident the Fed has the tools and has considered carefully how to use them to exit its extraordinary measures when the economic conditions are appropriate.
Yellen said while the labor market has shown signs of improvement, the economy remains far from full employment and the pace of economic growth is likely to be sufficient to lower joblessness only gradually.
"Unemployment has declined significantly over the past year even though growth appears to have been only moderate," said Yellen. "This unanticipated decline in the unemployment rate presents something of a puzzle, and it creates uncertainties for the outlook and policy."
While she does not see evidence of a significant increase in structural unemployment - jobs that have permanently disappeared - so far, Yellen said she was concerned it could rise over time if the labor market heals too slowly.
Even so, most of the decrease in the jobless rate has been due to improvement in labor market conditions rather than the dropping out of discouraged job-seekers.
The unemployment rate has fallen back to 8.2 percent from 9.1 percent last August.
Yellen said that while the recent run-up in energy prices is pushing up inflation temporarily, she anticipates inflation will run at or below the Fed's objective of 2 percent for the foreseeable future.
A Fed's "Beige Book" survey of economic conditions published on Wednesday rounded out a picture of a recovery that continues to press ahead, however, modestly, but that higher fuel prices were a concern.
Bullard said he was not dismayed by the sobering March payrolls report because many of the Labor Department's non-farm payrolls reports recently have been revised higher. The government report showed employers adding a meager 120,000 new jobs in March and fueled speculation the Federal Reserve would have to launch another round of monetary easing.
Bullard believes unemployment, which dipped to 8.2 percent last month, will continue to slip down below 8 percent by the end of the year and that economic growth will be around 3 percent.
Two other Fed officials who spoke on Wednesday said the financial system needs further retooling as it stabilizes after the 2007-2009 recession.
Money market funds must be thoroughly revamped in order to ensure a stable U.S. financial system, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Eric Rosengren, said at the Atlanta Fed conference.
Speaking in New York, Kansas City Fed President Esther George said it would be important to correct misplaced incentives and to scale back government protections that encourage excessive risk-taking to strengthen the financial system.
George has kept markets guessing as to her views on monetary policy.
(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Andrew Hay and Lisa Shumaker)