The Federal Reserve could slow the pace of its bond-purchase program this year if the job market continues to improve, according to the minutes of the last FOMC meeting released Wednesday.
The minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee's meeting last month showed policymakers were slightly more inclined to reel in massive bond purchases amid signs of recovery in the labor market.
"Many participants... expressed the view that continued solid improvement in the outlook for the labor market could prompt the Committee to slow the pace of purchases beginning at some point over the next several meetings," the minutes said.
The March 19-20 meeting came on the heels of the February jobs surge, which added 268,000 nonfarm payrolls. But the March data released last week showed a paltry gain of 88,000 jobs, the slowest growth in nine months and far below expectations.
Though the monthly jobs figures can be volatile, the March reading gave the first look at the labor market since the federal government's $85 billion a month "sequester" spending cuts started on March 1.
Drastic spending cuts through September -- a result of political gridlock in Washington on budget deficit reduction -- were expected to shave at least a half percentage point off economic growth and cost 750,000 jobs.
At the March meeting, FOMC members saw the information received since the January 29-30 meeting as suggesting that moderate economic growth had resumed following a pause late last year.
"All but one member judged that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy was warranted in order to foster a stronger economic recovery in a context of price stability," the minutes said.
The Fed announced it would continue its aggressive $85 billion-a-month bond purchases and held its near-zero key interest rate unchanged for a "considerable time after" the end of the program.
FOMC policymakers debated the risks of the bond-buying program, a third round of quantitative easing known as QE3.
"A few participants noted that they already viewed the costs as likely outweighing the benefits and so would like to bring the program to a close relatively relatively soon.""A few others" saw the risks accelerating with the size of the Fed's balance sheet and projected the pace of purchases would likely need to be slowed "before long."
"All but one member judged that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy was warranted in order to foster a stronger economic recovery in a context of price stability."
And one member said the pace of purchases "should ideally be slowed immediately."
Since the FOMC meeting, there has been a series of disappointing data, including falling consumer confidence and weaker-than-expected activity in the manufacturing and service sectors.
The weaker data have stoked questions about the strength of the recovery after mere 0.4 percent economic growth in the fourth quarter and supported analysts' expectations that the Fed will keep its foot on the QE pedal.
"In particular the more dovish FOMC members will certainly use the weaker numbers in recent weeks to underpin the need to maintain the current policy stance for longer," said Harm Bandholz of UniCredit Economics.
Ryan Sweet of Moody's Analytics predicted that if the economy continued to do well, adding around 200,000 jobs per month and generating above-potential growth, the Fed would scale back its quantitative easing in June.
"The next couple of months will be telling as the economy has experienced a midyear swoon over the past couple of years and the sequester could be the catalyst for this year's lull," Sweet said.
The FOMC minutes, which were scheduled for release at 1800 GMT, were released five hours early. The Fed explained it had moved up the release after discovering the minutes had been inadvertently emailed Monday to some people in Congress and lobbying groups who are on a distribution list.