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Apr 29, 5:20 PM EDT

Noting slower economy, Fed appears no closer to a rate hike


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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Federal Reserve downgraded its view of the U.S. economy Wednesday after a winter in which growth nearly froze. The Fed offered no sign that a rate increase might be coming soon.

On a day when the government estimated that the economy barely grew in the January-March quarter, the Fed acknowledged that economic barometers have weakened of late, in part because of temporary factors. It noted in a statement that growth has slowed, business investment has softened and exports have declined.

It also reiterated that before raising rates, it needs to be "reasonably confident" that low inflation will move back up to the Fed's 2 percent target.

In its statement, the Fed removed all calendar references - a message that any move to raise its key rate from a record low near zero will hinge entirely on what the economic data show.

The only parts of its policy statement the Fed changed Wednesday dealt with its assessment of economic conditions. It said growth has "slowed during the winter." That was a downgrade from its March statement, which said growth had "moderated somewhat."

But the Fed partly blamed "transitory factors" for the deceleration and stressed that it expects the economy to expand moderately.

David Jones, an economist who has written several books on the Fed, said he thinks a rate hike is unlikely until September. Still, he foresees a pickup in growth and a rate increase by fall.

"I think the Fed believes most of the slowdown will be temporary," Jones said. "There will be a bounce back in growth in the second quarter, and that is why I think the Fed will start raising rates in September."

Earlier Wednesday, the government estimated that the economy grew at a barely discernible annual rate of 0.2 percent in the January-March quarter, battered by harsh weather, plunging exports and scaled-back energy drilling. It was the poorest showing in a year and was down sharply from a 2.2 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter.

Stocks dropped on the disappointing economic news and remained low after the release of the Fed's policy statement. The Dow Jones industrial average closed down about 74 points, or 0.4 percent.

Among the areas of the economy that may have weakened is the job market. U.S. employers added just 126,000 workers in March, the fewest since December 2013, breaking a 12-month streak of gains above 200,000. Gauges of manufacturing, housing and consumer spending of late have also been weak to modest.

The Fed's unanimous decision Wednesday means it will keep its key rate near zero, where it's been since December 2008. That's when the Fed slashed the rate as low as it could to support an economy heading into the deepest recession since the 1930s.

Until the economy's recent slowdown, many economists had thought the first rate hike could occur in June. But analysts have been pushing back their estimates of the first rate increase until September or possibly later. Some analysts say persistently modest growth and low inflation could keep the Fed on hold until 2016.

Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said the statement made clear that Fed officials expect both the economy and inflation to rebound.

"But until they see evidence of such a rebound, which could take another few months, they are in no rush to raise interest rates from near-zero," Ashworth said.

After the Fed's announcement, it held a conference call with reporters to amplify comments Fed Chair Janet Yellen made in March. Yellen said then that the Fed wouldn't be limited to acting on rates only at its four meetings a year that are followed by a news conference.

Yellen said the Fed could take action at any of its eight regular meetings each year and, if needed, would hold a conference call with reporters to explain its move.

The Fed's June and September meetings will be followed by Yellen news conferences. But its July 28-29 meeting will not include one.

Inflation, by the Fed's preferred measurement, has been running below 2 percent for nearly three years. It recent months, inflation has fallen even farther from the 2 percent target as tumbling energy prices and a surging dollar have reduced prices.

The statement said job growth had moderated, a nod to the tepid March employment report. The Fed statement also said household spending had declined, though incomes were described as rising strongly, in part reflecting lower energy prices. It also mentioned that the housing recovery remained slow.

The sharp drop in oil and gasoline prices had been expected to help boost consumer spending. So far, it hasn't. The economic impact has been mainly negative - layoffs by oil-industry states and cutbacks in investments by energy companies.

Perhaps the biggest drag on the economy has been a sustained rise in the dollar's value. The stronger dollar has hurt American manufacturers by making their goods costlier overseas. It's also made cheaper foreign imports more competitive in the United States, thereby squeezing sales of U.S. companies and depressing profits. .

Still, economists say many people who are now pocketing their savings from cheaper gas will likely step up their spending in the coming months.

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