US jobs, factory, inflation data favor easy Fed policy

By Lucia Mutikani ,Reuters

WASHINGTON — A raft of U.S. economic data on Thursday from claims for jobless aid to factory activity and consumer prices pointed to a still tepid recovery and supported the argument for the Federal Reserve to maintain its monetary stimulus. The Fed is currently buying US$85 billion in bonds per month and has said it would keep up purchases until the labor market outlook improves substantially, although officials are increasingly divided over the wisdom of that course. “The economy is in a holding pattern. It’s not going to strengthen sufficiently to justify an end of the current program,” said Millan Mulraine, senior economist at TD Securities in New York.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 20,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 362,000, unwinding the bulk of the prior week’s decline, the Labor Department said. A second report from the department showed consumer prices were flat for a second straight month in January as gasoline prices fell and the cost of food held steady. In the 12 months through January, consumer prices rose 1.6 percent, the smallest gain since July. That suggested there was little inflation pressure to worry the Fed. Concerns over tepid job growth prompted the U.S. central bank last year to embark on its open-ended bond buying program. However, minutes of the Fed’s Jan. 29-30 policy meeting published on Wednesday showed some policymakers feel the central bank may have to slow or stop the asset purchases before it sees an acceleration in job growth because of concerns over the financial risks of the program.

Those diverging views were evident on Thursday, with two Fed officials signaling support for scaling back the program, while another outlined the case for maintaining bond purchases until well into the second half of the year.

News on the manufacturing sector, which has supported the economy’s recovery from the 2007-09 recession, was downbeat. The Philadelphia Fed’s business activity index dropped to minus 12.5 in February, the lowest level since June. The index, which measures factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region, had fallen to minus 5.8 in January.

A reading below zero indicates contraction in the region’s manufacturing sector. The survey covers factories in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware.