WASHINGTON – Federal Reserve officials raised concerns last month that a big jump in energy prices could weaken the economy and unleash inflation, prompting a few to suggest the possibility of tightening credit this year.
Such a move usually involves boosting interest rates, although the minutes from the Fed's closed-door meeting on March 15 did not specify that. The minutes, which were released Tuesday, also did not note which members raised the prospect of a change in policy, or how many.
It simply stated that a "few members" raised that possibility. Those members appeared to be in the minority.
Another group of Fed members, presumably the majority, said the Fed might need to keep holding interest rates at record low levels beyond this year.
The differing viewpoints about potential future policy actions highlight a growing number of challenges facing the economy, which all the members agreed was improving.
At last month's meeting, the Fed offered its most optimistic assessment of the economy since the recession. Fed policymakers said the recovery was finally on "firmer footing." Companies had stepped up hiring and both consumers and businesses were spending more.
The Fed decided to maintain the pace of its $600 billion Treasury bond-purchase program to help the economy grow at a faster pace and to help lower unemployment. It also left its key interest rate at a record low near zero, where it has been since December 2008.
Those decisions were unanimous.
Still, the minutes noted that Fed members discussed possible pitfalls, both at home and abroad.
All the members seemed to agree that widespread disruptions in oil production and a larger jump in energy prices could weaken the economy and spur inflation.
The Fed ultimately agreed with the view stated publicly by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, that the run-up in oil prices would have only a modest impact on consumer prices.
But a few members "indicated that economic conditions might warrant a move toward less accommodative monetary policy this year," the minutes stated.
While the minutes didn't name the policymakers, three of the Fed's most hawkish members on inflation have raised concerns publicly in recent weeks.
Charles Plosser, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, has suggested the Fed might need to boost interest rates to guard against high inflation. Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, also has said rates could go up by the end of this year. Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, has raised concerns that the Fed's policies could spur inflation.
"It looks like the united policy to provide stimulus to the economy is starting to be questioned by a few of the members, and that number could grow in the months to come," said economist Chris Rupkey at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ. Rupkey thinks the Fed might be forced to start raising interest rates near the end of this year to fend off inflation. Most other economists, however, predict rate increases will start early next year.
The Fed minutes noted that a number of businesses were passing some of the higher costs for energy and other materials along to their customers by boosting retail prices. Some businesses indicated that they were leery of jacking up retail prices, fearing higher prices would turn off consumers.
Some members were also skeptical about the economic benefits of the bond-purchase program, but they didn't think any changes were warranted at the March meeting. The program is intended to invigorate the economy by getting Americans to spend more. It aims to lower rates on loans and to boost stock prices.
A few members said the Fed might need to either trim the size of the program or slow down its pace if the economy grows more strongly and threatens to spur inflation. Other members didn't foresee making any changes to the program, which is slated to shut down at the end of June.
To better explain the Fed's views on economic growth, employment and inflation, the Fed agreed that Bernanke will hold press briefings four times a year. His first will be on April 27 after the Fed wraps up a two-day meeting.
Fed members said they view the briefings as a potentially useful way to make the Fed more open and to improve the Fed's communications with the public and investors, according to the minutes.
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