WASHINGTON — A majority of Federal Reserve policymakers want to continue extraordinary bond purchases to help boost the U.S. economy at least through the middle of the year, according to minutes from the Fed's last meeting released Wednesday.
But many members indicated they want to slow and eventually end the program before the end of the year, as long as the job market and economy show sustained improvement. The Fed's purchases of about $85 billion a month in Treasury and mortgage bonds are intended to lower long-term interest rates and encourage more borrowing and spending.
The minutes of the Fed's March 19-20 meeting were released at 9 a.m. EDT – five hours earlier than planned – after the Fed said it inadvertently sent them a day earlier to congressional staffers and lobbyists. The more than 100 recipients also included employees at JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs Group, Wells Fargo and other large banks , according to a list of email addresses released later in the day by the Fed.
"One gets the sense that many Fed policymakers are anxious to start paring back the size of the ... purchases as soon as the data allow," Dana Saporta, an economist at Credit Suisse, said in a note to clients.
Still, a weak employment report released Friday is likely to make policymakers even more supportive of keeping the measures in place for the foreseeable future.
The report showed employers added just 88,000 net jobs last month. That was the fewest in nine months and much lower than the average of 220,000 jobs a month created from November through February.
The unemployment rate dropped to a four-year low of 7.6 percent last month. However, the rate fell only because more people stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed.
In its statement after the last meeting, the Fed said the economy had strengthened but still needed its efforts to help lower high unemployment. In addition to continuing the bond purchases, the Fed stuck by its plan to keep short-term interest rates at record lows at least until unemployment falls to 6.5 percent.
The minutes indicated that many of the Fed's members want to see sustained improvement in the job market – from a wide range of economic indicators – before making any decision to reduce the pace of purchases.
Stocks rose sharply after the minutes were released. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 16 points to 1,585 in midday trading – above its all-time high of 1,576.09 set in October 2007. The Dow Jones industrial average climbed 119 points to 14,792.
The Fed made minutes public earlier on Wednesday after learning that about 100 congressional staffers and lobbyists received them at 2 p.m. EDT on Tuesday. They had been scheduled to be released at 2 p.m. EDT on Wednesday.
Fed spokesman David Skidmore said the Fed notified the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission about the mishap. The Fed also asked its inspector general to investigate its procedures for releasing the minutes.
"At this time we do not know if there was any trading related to the early distribution," Skidmore said. "Every indication at this time is that the early distribution of the minutes was entirely accidental."
John Nester, a spokesman for the SEC, declined to comment on the release of the minutes, beyond saying that the Fed contacted the SEC staff.
Several staff members of both the House Financial Services and Senate Banking committees were among those who received the minutes early.
The minutes showed a wide array of opinions and criteria for when to end the bond purchases, which have boosted the Fed's balance sheet to $3.2 trillion.
A few members want to end "relatively soon" the bond-purchase program. Those members say the costs likely outweigh the benefits. A few others saw the risks as increasing quickly and said the purchases would likely need to be reduced "before long."
Many members said an improved job market could lead them to slow purchases within a few months, and a few said economic conditions would likely justify continuing the program until late this year.
AP Business Writer Marcy Gordon contributed to this report.
Also on HuffPost:
Myth: The Fed actually prints money.
<a href="http://www.foxbusiness.com/industries/2012/08/17/chance-fed-printing-more-money-jumps-to-60/">People commonly say</a> that the Fed itself prints money. It's true that the Fed is in charge of the money supply. But technically, <a href="http://www.newyorkfed.org/aboutthefed/fedpoint/fed01.html">the Treasury Department prints money on the Fed's behalf</a>. Asking the Treasury Department to print cash isn't even necessary for the Fed <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/21/federal-reserve-profit-2011_n_1369354.html">to buy securities</a>.
Myth: The Federal Reserve is spending money wastefully.
Both CNN anchor <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/31/cnn-erin-burnett-federal-reserve-stimulus_n_1848210.html" target="_hplink">Erin Burnett</a> and Republican vice presidential nominee <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2012/09/07/813011/paul-ryan-jobs-qe/" target="_hplink">Paul Ryan</a> have compared the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing to government spending. But <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/21/federal-reserve-profit-2011_n_1369354.html">the Federal Reserve actually has created new money</a> by expanding its balance sheet. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/21/federal-reserve-profit-2011_n_1369354.html">The Fed earned a $77.4 billion profit</a> last year, most of which it gave to the U.S. government.
Myth: The Fed is causing hyperinflation.
<a href="http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/15/inflation-predictions/" target="_hplink">Some</a> <a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/niall-ferguson-has-been-wrong-on-economics-2012-8" target="_hplink">conservatives</a> <a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/ron-paul-is-putting-on-a-great-show-right-now-in-front-of-bernanke-2012-2">have claimed</a> that the Federal Reserve is causing hyperinflation. But inflation is actually at <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/sunday-review/the-facts-on-the-fed.html" target="_hplink">historically low levels</a>, and there is no sign that is going to change. <a href="http://www.bls.gov/news.release/cpi.nr0.htm" target="_hplink">Core prices have risen</a> just 1.4 percent over the past year, according to the Labor Department -- below the Federal Reserve's <a href="http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/bernanke20120831a.htm" target="_hplink">target of 2 percent</a>.
Myth: The amount of cash available has grown tremendously.
<a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/10/business/economy/10fed.html?_r=1">Some Federal Reserve critics claim</a> that the Fed has devalued the U.S. dollar through a massive expansion of the amount of currency in circulation. But not only is inflation low; <a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/the-animated-gif-of-boy-throwing-money-out-of-the-window-is-not-a-metaphor-for-qe-2012-9">currency growth also has not really changed</a> since the Fed started its stimulus measures, as noted by Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal.
Myth: The gold standard would make prices more stable.
<a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/ron-paul-is-putting-on-a-great-show-right-now-in-front-of-bernanke-2012-2">Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) has claimed</a> that bringing back the gold standard would make prices more stable. But prices actually were much less stable under the gold standard than they are today, as <a href="http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/08/why-the-gold-standard-is-the-worlds-worst-economic-idea-in-2-charts/261552/"><em>The Atlantic's</em> Matthew O'Brien</a> and <a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/why-conservatives-like-the-gold-standard-2012-8">Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal</a> have noted.
Myth: The Fed is causing food and gas prices to rise.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/08/erin-burnett-federal-reserve_n_1866971.html">CNN anchor Erin Burnett claimed in September</a> that the Federal Reserve's stimulus measures have caused food and gas prices to rise. But many economists believe global supply and demand issues are influencing these prices, not Fed policy. And <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/08/erin-burnett-federal-reserve_n_1866971.html">there actually is no correlation between the Fed's stimulus measures and commodity prices</a>, according to some economists Paul Krugman and Dean Baker.
Myth: Quantitative easing has not helped job growth.
<a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelpento/2012/05/01/why-higher-inflation-destroys-jobs/">Some Federal Reserve critics</a> claim that the Fed's stimulus measures have destroyed jobs. But <a href="http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/bernanke20120831a.htm">the Fed's quantitative easing measures actually have saved or created more than 2 million jobs</a>, according to the Fed's economists. In addition, JPMorgan Chase chief economist Michael Feroli told Bloomberg last month that <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-09-10/bernanke-proves-like-no-other-fed-chairman-on-joblessness.html" target="_hplink">QE3 will provide at least a small benefit</a> to the economy.
Myth: Tying the U.S. dollar to commodities would solve everything.
<a href="http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-08-16/news/33236684_1_monetary-policy-inflation-currency-debasement">Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has proposed</a> tying the value of the U.S. dollar to a basket of commodities, in an aim to promote price stability. But <a href="http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/08/forget-paul-ryans-budget-his-scariest-idea-is-about-the-federal-reserve/261066/">this actually would cause prices to be much less stable</a> and hurt the U.S. economy overall, as <em>The Atlantic's</em> Matthew O'Brien has noted.
Myth: Ending the Fed would make the financial system more stable.
<a href="http://www.amazon.com/End-Fed-Ron-Paul/dp/B004IEA4DM">Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) claims</a> that ending the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard would make the U.S. financial system more stable. But <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/video/should-the-u-s-return-to-the-gold-standard-wsDVrOKATTqyTaG5yBY1kQ.html">the U.S. economy actually experienced longer and more frequent financial crises and recessions</a> during the 19th century, when the U.S. was using the gold standard and did not have the Fed.
Myth: The Fed can't do anything else to help job growth.
<a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/business/economy/whats-with-all-the-bernanke-bashing.html">Many</a> <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/economics-blog/2012/jun/27/federal-reserve-runs-out-of-options">commentators</a> have claimed that there simply aren't any tools left in the Fed's toolkit to be able to help job growth. But <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-07-09/fed-harms-itself-by-missing-goals-stevenson-and-wolfers.html">some economists</a> <a href="http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/08/28/the_i_word/">have noted</a> that the Fed could target a higher inflation rate to stimulate job growth. <a href="http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/25/bernanke-on-what-the-fed-can-do/">The Fed, however, has ruled this option out</a> -- for now.
Myth: The Fed can't easily unwind all of this stimulus.
<a href="http://www.salon.com/2012/09/01/ben_bernanke_speaks//">Some commentators</a> <a href="http://seekingalpha.com/article/161203-fed-unwinding-won-t-be-easy">have claimed</a> that the Fed can't safely unwind its quantitative easing measures. But the Fed's program involves buying some of the most heavily traded and owned securities in the world, Treasury and government-backed mortgage bonds. The Fed will likely have little problem finding buyers for these securities, all of which will eventually expire even if the Fed does nothing. But <a href="http://economistsview.typepad.com/timduy/2012/09/plosser-opposes-the-1933-37-expansion.html">economists have noted</a> that once the Fed decides it's time to unwind the stimulus, the economy will have improved to such an extent that this won't be an issue.