The broad indices were already down but turned sharply lower in afternoon trading after the Federal Reserve released the minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee's meetings Jan. 29 and 30.
The Fed has said over the past two months that most members of the Federal Open Market Committee believe it is appropriate for the central bank to continue with its "highly accommodative" policy of keeping the federal funds rate in a range of zero to 0.25% until the unemployment rate falls below 6.5%, assuming inflation is kept in check. The Fed has also been making monthly purchases of $85 billion in long-term U.S. Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities to keep long-term rates down.
However, the Open Market Committee meeting minutes indicated that some members were having a change of heart. According to the minutes, "a few participants expressed concerns that the current highly accommodative stance of monetary policy posed upside risks to inflation in the medium or longer term."When discussing the central bank's continued ballooning balance sheet, "several participants noted that a very large portfolio of long-duration assets would, under certain circumstances, expose the Federal Reserve to significant capital losses when these holdings were unwound." Some committee members suggested that the Fed might vary the pace of its securities purchases, while "a number of participants" said the Fed might "taper or end its purchases before it judged that a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market had occurred." Also Wednesday, the Census Bureau said U.S. housing starts during January declined to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 890,000, from a revised 973,000 during December. The pace of housing starts was 24% higher than in January 2012. The decline in housing starts in January was limited to multifamily homes, with an annual pace of 260,000 multifamily units, declining sharply from 352,000 in December. Single-family housing starts actually rose slightly to an annual pace of 613,000 in January, from 608,000 in December.