As expected, the Federal Reserve Board stood pat on Wednesday, refraining from further economic stimulus programs and leaving interest rates alone.
The Fed said economic growth “strengthened somewhat” during the third quarter, which reflected a reversal from the spring when growth slowed due primarily to temporary factors such as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March.
The Federal Open Market Committee, which sets much of the central bank’s fiscal policy, voted 9-1 in favor of taking no action. Three regional Fed presidents, Richard Fisher of Dallas, Narayana Kocherlakota of Minneapolis and Charles Plosser of Philadelphia, who have dissented on recent votes to take additional measures voted with the majority on Wednesday.
The lone dissenter, Charles Evans of Chicago, supports further stimulus to kickstart the ailing U.S. economy, according to a statement released by the Federal Reserve.
The FOMC members said they are still eyeing additional measures, citing continued weakness in the labor and housing markets. And echoing all of their recent policy statements, the members said inflation remains a long-term concern but is not yet an immediate priority.
The question on many minds ahead of the Fed’s decision was what weapons the Fed has left to spur economic growth.
Another round of quantitative easing has been hinted at but there is strong opposition both in Congress and among the handful Fed dissenters to the central bank buying up more debt on top of the nearly $3 trillion already purchased since the 2008 financial crisis.
The first two rounds of quantitative easing have been met with limited success at best and skeptics say another round isn’t likely to help much either. Besides, improving liquidity by essentially printing money eventually leads to inflation.
Meanwhile, interest rates are already at historically low levels, hovering for nearly three years in a range of 0 to 0.25%, where they’ll stay until at least mid-2013, at the Fed’s direction.
Low interest rates theoretically promote lending and borrowing. But banks are reluctant to lend after getting burned by the credit bubble last decade, and consumers are reluctant to borrow, opting instead to put some money away in savings.
In September the Fed announced a plan to shift part of its portfolio from short term debt securities to long-term securities, a strategy dubbed Operation Twist, in an effort to lower long-term interest rates, including mortgages.
But despite the lowest mortgage rates in decades the housing market remains glutted with inventory and home values continue to fall, which cuts into consumer spending as fearful home owners watch the biggest investment of their lives crumble.
Again, mortgage lenders are reluctant to approve loans and consumers are reluctant to take the plunge into home ownership.
And no amount of economic stimulus has had much impact on the U.S. labor market, as unemployment has remained stuck at or near 9% for months. Data released Wednesday showed U.S. private-sector payrolls grew by 110,000 workers in October, but that hardly makes a dent among the 14 million unemployed Americans.
One strategy the Fed has mulled but not yet implemented is tying future stimulus programs to specific data target such as inflation or unemployment.