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Fed Closes Out Wild Year as All Eyes Focus on Bond-Buying Program

The Fed is also low on new tricks, but not entirely out of them. Officials could, as early as this week’s meeting, change the way they are buying bonds in order to have more of an economic impact.

Policymakers are mulling whether to shift toward longer-term debt and away from short-term notes. That wonky maneuver may seem technical, but it could have the effect of holding down borrowing costs on things like mortgages and business loans and, in doing so, set the stage for stronger growth.

“The economy is far more sensitive to longer-term rates,” said Priya Misra, global head of rates strategy at TD Securities. She pointed out that without Fed action, longer-term rates will rise as a deluge of Treasury securities enter the market to fund the government’s pandemic spending.

But it is not a slam-dunk that such a change will happen at this meeting. Regional Fed presidents have expressed lukewarm appetite for changing the so-called quantitative easing, or Q.E., programs now.

“If we need to offer more support or we need to prop up the support that we’ve offered, we can use Q.E. for that, including changing the duration,” Mary C. Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said in a recent question-and-answer session. “But if you look at financial markets right now, I see no indication that they are misunderstanding where we’re headed and that we need to somehow do something different to get financial markets where we need them to be.”

Conditions are evolving quickly. Since the Fed entered its premeeting quiet period, during which officials do not give speeches, virus cases have continued to climb, several real-time data points have pointed to economic weakening, and rates on the closely-watched 10-year Treasury bond have crept higher, making many types of credit a bit more expensive. At the same time, vaccines have been approved and early disbursement has begun.

Even if the Fed leaves the contours of its bond-purchase program unchanged for now, economists think the central bank might update the way it talks about its plans for the future. The central bank has indicated that it might offer guidance on how long it plans to buy assets to keep markets performing smoothly and bolster the economy “fairly soon.” That is likely to entail tying its bond-buying plans to qualitative — rather than numbers-based — economic goals.

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