Fed sees improving U.S. economy, jobs

Says first-quarter slowdown overcome despite downturn in energy sector, overseas headwinds

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The U.S. economy and job market continue to strengthen, the Federal Reserve said on Wednesday, leaving the door open for a possible interest rate hike when central bank policymakers next meet in September.

Following a two-day policy meeting, Fed officials said they felt the economy had overcome a first-quarter slowdown and was "expanding moderately" despite a downturn in the energy sector and headwinds from overseas.

The central bank nodded in particular to "solid job gains" in recent months.

"On balance, a range of labour market indicators suggest that underutilization of labour resources has diminished since early this year," the Fed said in a policy statement that kept rates unchanged.

That language marks an upgrade in its view of labour conditions since its June meeting, when it said labour slack had "diminished somewhat."

The statement may strengthen expectations of a rate hike at the Fed's September meeting. The central bank has kept rates at a near-zero level since December 2008 as part of its effort to spur the recovery from the 2007-2009 financial crisis.

Treasury yields fell with the 10-year dipping to 2.28 per cent from 2.29 per cent. After a modest run higher following the statement, the S&P 500 was slightly below where it was before the release, up about 0.4 per cent on the day.

However, the Fed didn't give a clear signal on its rate plan. Instead, it said it wanted to see "some further improvement in the labour market," and gain more confidence that low inflation will rise to its two per cent medium-term target.

The policy statement also retained language saying that risks are "nearly balanced," suggesting the Fed is still more concerned about a new economic downturn rather than of rapidly rising inflation.

Central bank officials and market analysts have been waiting to see if weak growth in the first part of the year signaled the beginning of the end of an economic expansion, or merely a pause.

The verdict now seems firm.

"The Fed is taking baby steps towards a rate hike. Enough improvements have been made in the labour market that the Fed only needs a little more confirming evidence to say it is time," said Brian Jacobsen, chief portfolio strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management.

Most economists forecast that U.S. economic growth will pick up after a lackluster first half and that the Fed will begin its monetary tightening in September, according to a Reuters poll published last week.

And Wall Street's top banks still target September as the most likely time for the Fed to begin its monetary tightening, according to another Reuters poll published earlier this month.

Though inflation remains weak, the statement portrayed an economy that continues to tighten, with a 5.3 per cent unemployment rate and steady job creation.

With no meeting scheduled in August, the Fed will have two months of data to analyze before deciding whether to hike rates for the first time since 2006.

There were no dissents.

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