The Federal Reserve may bring an end to speculation about the "taper" this week during its monetary policy meeting Tuesday and Wednesday. Since June, the central bank has kept investors on edge about the timing of its plans to slow down its $85 billion monthly bond-buying program.
A quarter of economists polled by the Wall Street Journal expect the Fed to announce the taper with Wednesday afternoon's press release and news conference. But one-third anticipate that the Fed's monetary policy committee will hold off until its January meeting, and another third believe the taper won't come until March. Chairman Ben Bernanke and other Fed officials have repeatedly said that any decision will be based on incoming economic data.
Fed members will get a few pieces of crucial economic data just before their meeting in Washington concludes. On Tuesday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will release a report on inflation for November based on the Consumer Price Index. Inflation, one of the economic indicators the Fed says it will take into account in determining when to slow the asset purchases, has been running well below the Fed's 2 percent target. Headline CPI inflation was just 1 percent for the year ending in October, or 1.7 percent excluding the volatile food and energy components. Producer Price Index inflation released by the BLS last week showed 1.3 percent core inflation. The measure preferred by the Fed, based on core personal consumption expenditures, was just 1.1 percent. Such low readings may tip the Fed toward maintaining the stimulus efforts at their current rates.
On Wednesday, the Commerce Department will release three months' worth of data on housing starts. This information had been delayed by the government shutdown in October. The mass release will provide a clearer picture of the housing market's resilience in the face of elevated mortgage rates.
Wednesday's press conference may be the last public appearance by Bernanke as the head of the Fed. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated that the Senate would likely vote on the nomination of Janet Yellen, the current Fed vice chairwoman, late in the week after other legislative business. Yellen, who needs only 51 votes to clear the Senate following the rules changes for nominations made by Reid in late November, would take over from Bernanke after the January meeting of the Fed's monetary policy committee, which does not include a press conference.