Federal Reserve Building is the headquarter of the Federal Reserve System and 12 Federal Reserve Banks, Washington DC, USA
© Wangkun Jia / 123Rf Stock Photo

Federal Reserve officials were convinced last month that the U.S. economy and job growth had slowed as coronavirus cases surged across the country, noting that the outlook is heavily dependent on the course of the virus.

The minutes of the Fed’s January discussions show officials believed that the ongoing public health crisis was still posing “considerable risks” to the economy.

The minutes, released Wednesday, show widespread Fed support for the central bank’s policy of emphasizing ultra-low interest rates to boost the economy and help millions of Americans regain lost jobs.

“Members agreed that the Federal Reserve was committed to using its full range of tools to support the U.S. economy in this challenging time,” according to the minutes, which covered the Fed’s discussions at its Jan. 26–27 meeting.

The minutes note some improvement in the economy’s medium-term outlook as distribution of vaccines ramped up and Congress passed a $900-billion relief measure that provided more direct payments to individuals and expanded unemployment benefits.

At its January meeting, the Fed kept its benchmark interest rate at a record low of zero to 0.25% and pledged to keep pursuing its low-interest rate policies until an economic recovery is well underway.

The Fed does not meet again until March 16–17. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, however, will appear before Congress next week to deliver the central bank’s semi-annual monetary report to the Congress, an appearance financial markets will be following closely for any clues of the Fed’s future moves on interest rates.

The Fed has signalled that it does not plan to begin raising interest rates until after 2023. In addition to low rates, the Fed is buying $80 billion in Treasury securities and $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities each month and analysts expect those purchases to continue for some time to come.

In remarks last week to the Economic Club of New York, Powell emphasized the Fed’s commitment to reduce unemployment to multi-decade lows.

Powell said while the early recovery last year, helped by nearly $4 trillion in government support, had been surprising, the country was “still very far from a strong labour market whose benefits are broadly shared.”

The government on Wednesday reported the biggest monthly gain in wholesale prices in more than a decade. That news followed a report last week that consumer prices rose in January at their fastest pace in four months.

Powell has cautioned that inflation, which has been a no-show for the past decade, could accelerate for a time in coming months as the country opens up. But he and many private economists believe this will be only a temporary rise and not a sign that inflation is getting out of control.