Glum Fed considered even bolder action in August

By Pedro Nicolaci da Costa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve considered a range of actions to help a struggling economy at its August meeting, including the unprecedented step of tying the interest rate policy outlook to a specific unemployment level.

Before settling on a promise to keep rates near zero until 2013, a decision that prompted three dissents, Fed officials noted the economic outlook had worsened significantly, arguing that the weakness seen during the first half of the year could no longer be dismissed as solely temporary.

"Participants noted a deterioration in labor market conditions, slower household spending, a drop in consumer and business confidence and continued weakness in the housing sector," according to minutes from the central bank's August 9 meeting released on Tuesday.

Against that backdrop, a few Fed members wanted to take even bolder action but, the minutes said, "were willing to accept the stronger forward guidance as a step in the direction of additional accommodation."

The economy sputtered in the first six months of 2011, with gross domestic product expanding at less than a 1 percent annual pace. The jobless rate, meanwhile, remains stuck above 9 percent.

At its meeting, the Fed discussed a range of tools for additional monetary easing, including engaging in further asset purchases or shifting the composition of bonds on the central bank's portfolio toward longer-dated maturities.

Purchases of longer-dated securities could further depress long-term borrowing costs, though some Fed officials expressed doubt that any of these steps would offer much support to growth.

Still, given the prospect of a protracted snail-paced recovery and tighter fiscal policy, Fed officials scrambled for unorthodox ways they could bolster the recovery.

"In choosing to phrase the outlook for policy in terms of a time horizon, members also considered conditioning the outlook for the level of the federal funds rate on explicit numerical values for the unemployment rate or the inflation rate," the minutes said.