WASHINGTON – The Federal Reserve said it will keep trimming the pace of asset purchases as the economy shakes off the winter doldrums, putting the central bank on a course to end the unprecedented stimulus program by the close of 2014.
Growth "has picked up recently," the Federal Open Market Committee said Wednesday in a statement in Washington, hours after a government report showed gross domestic product barely grew in the first quarter. "Household spending appears to be rising more quickly."
The committee pared monthly asset buying to $45 billion, its fourth straight $10 billion cut, and said further reductions in "measured steps" are likely. At that pace, the quantitative easing program intended to push down borrowing costs for companies and consumers would end in December.
"Tapering is on autopilot," said Thomas Costerg, a New York-based economist at Standard Chartered PLC. "You need a much bigger swing in the data to stop tapering and much more weakness than just a 0.1 percent print on GDP."
Stocks and Treasuries rose as the Fed repeated that it's likely to keep the benchmark interest rate close to zero for a "considerable time" after bond purchases end.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index climbed 0.3 percent to close at 1,883.95 in New York. The 10-year note yield dropped four basis points, or 0.04 percentage point, to 2.65 percent.
Fed officials led by Chairwoman Janet Yellen repeated long-term inflation expectations remain stable. The central bank's preferred gauge of consumer prices climbed 0.9 percent in the year through February and hasn't exceeded the Fed's 2 percent goal since March 2012.
The Fed, in its unanimous decision, kept its forward guidance on borrowing costs, saying it will consider a "wide range of information" in deciding when to raise the benchmark federal funds rate, or the cost of overnight loans among banks.
A report earlier Wednesday from the Commerce Department showed that the economy slowed more than forecast by economists, to a 0.1 percent annual pace, following a 2.6 percent gain in the fourth quarter.
The pullback in growth came as snow blanketed much of the eastern half of the country, keeping shoppers from stores, preventing builders from breaking ground and raising costs for companies.
"The Fed is saying you have to look past the weak GDP numbers, and we are past that now," said Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, N.C.
Consumer spending remained strong at a 3 percent pace, Wednesday's GDP report showed, and recent data on payrolls, manufacturing and retail sales indicate the economy is gaining strength. Growth is forecast by economists to accelerate to a 3 percent pace this quarter.
Private employment in March exceeded the prerecession peak for the first time as payrolls excluding government agencies rose by 192,000 workers.
Employers probably added another 215,000 workers to payrolls in April, according to the median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists ahead of a Labor Department report in two days. The jobless rate is projected to decline to 6.6 percent from 6.7 percent.
While unemployment is down from 10 percent in October 2009, it's still above the 5.2 percent to 5.6 percent range that the Fed considers full employment.
Yellen said on April 16 the Fed has a "continuing commitment" to support the recovery even as policymakers see the central bank meeting its mandate for full employment by late 2016.
The Fed last month dropped a commitment to keep the rate near zero at least as long as unemployment exceeds 6.5 percent and the outlook for inflation is no higher than 2.5 percent.