WASHINGTON - The weak March jobs report has muddled the picture of when the Fed might pull back and eventually halt its program.
Minutes of the policy meeting three weeks ago, released Wednesday, show that the 19 participants were not on the same page when it came to backing off the central bank's purchase of $85 billion of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities monthly.
Some officials see the Fed tapering off the program in the next few months. Others at the meeting advocated keeping the current level of stimulus in place through the third quarter, while still others thought it would continue until at least the end of this year.
The Fed's debate over the size and duration of the bond-buying, known as quantitative easing, has heated up in recent months as the economy showed signs of perking up and experts expressed worries about the potential harm of keeping the easy-money spigot open for a long time.
Besides the risk of igniting inflation, economists and some Fed officials are concerned that the current policies are encouraging excessive risk-taking and could destabilize financial markets.
Fed staff members, who were directed to study the costs and benefits of the latest round of quantitative easing, indicated at the March 19-20 meeting that low interest rates likely have helped boost asset prices and increased the flow of credit to consumers and businesses - for example, spurring auto and home sales. "But these changes to date do not appear to have been accompanied by significant financial imbalances," the minutes said of the staff review.
Most Fed policymakers agreed with that general assessment. Still, a few participants see things differently, saying the costs of the bond-buying likely outweigh the benefits, according to the minutes. "A few others saw the risks as increasing fairly quickly with the size of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet," the account said, noting that these officials wanted the pace of purchases to be reduced before long.