WASHINGTON — With a nervous eye on the “fiscal cliff,” the Federal Reserve is expected today to announce a new bond-buying plan to support the U.S. economy.
The goal would be to further reduce long-term interest rates and encourage borrowing by companies and individuals. If it succeeds, the Fed might at least soften the blow from tax increases and spending cuts that will kick in in January if Congress can’t reach a budget deal.
But the Fed’s actions wouldn’t rescue the economy. Chairman Ben Bernanke warned last month that if the economy fell off a “broad fiscal cliff,” the Fed probably couldn’t offset the shock.
Fears of the cliff have led some U.S. companies to delay expanding, investing and hiring. Manufacturing has reached its weakest point since July 2009, and consumers have cut back on spending. Unemployment has dipped in recent months but remains a still-high 7.7 percent.
If higher taxes and government spending cuts lasted for much of 2013, most experts say the economy would sink into another recession.
Once its two-day policy meeting ends today, the Fed is likely to say it will start buying more long-term Treasurys to replace a program that expires at year’s end. Under the expiring program, the Fed has sold short-term Treasurys and used the proceeds to buy $45 billion a month in long-term Treasurys.
The plan is called “Operation Twist” because it’s sought to twist long-term rates lower relative to short-term rates.
One advantage of Twist is that it hasn’t increased the Fed’s record-high investment portfolio. Critics have said that when the Fed pumps more money into the financial system and adds to its portfolio, it risks escalating inflation later.
Unlike Twist, the Fed’s new program would expand its portfolio, which totals nearly $2.9 trillion, more than three times its size before the 2008 financial crisis. Most economists think the Fed will replace the $45 billion-a-month Twist program with a roughly equal amount of Treasury purchases each month.
“The Fed really has only one key decision at the meeting, and that is how much of the current program will they replace,” said David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors.
When the Fed expands its portfolio with bond purchases, it’s called quantitative easing, or QE. The Fed has launched three rounds of QE since the financial crisis hit. QE3 began in September; under it, the Fed is buying $40 billion in mortgage bonds each month. A new program would amount to an extension of QE3.
After it last met in September, the Fed said it would keep buying mortgage bonds until the job market improved substantially. It also extended its plan to keep its benchmark short-term rate near zero through at least mid-2015. And it raised the possibility of taking other steps.
Skeptics note that rates on mortgages and many other loans are already at or near all-time lows. So any further declines in rates engineered by the Fed might offer little economic benefit.
But besides seeking to spur lending, the Fed’s drive to cut rates has another goal, to induce investors to shift money out of low-yielding bonds and into stocks, which could lift stock prices.