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Fed's Stein: need to be more predictable on bond taper

Federal Reserve Board of Governors member Jeremy Stein listens during an open board meeting at the Federal Reserve in Washington December 14
Federal Reserve Board of Governors member Jeremy Stein listens during an open board meeting at the Federal Reserve in Washington December 14

By Sakari Suoninen and Edward Taylor

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve should make itself more predictable about scaling back its massive bond buying campaign, a top U.S. central banker said on Thursday, acknowledging that it had confused markets by not tapering at its meeting last week.

Fed Governor Jeremy Stein said he would have been comfortable starting to reduce asset purchases at the September 17-18 meeting, and that the decision to keep buying at an $85 billion monthly pace had been, for him, a "close call".

"But whether we start in September or a bit later is not in itself the key issue - the difference in the overall amount of securities we buy will be modest," he told a monetary policy conference in Frankfurt.

"What is much more important is doing everything we can to ensure that this difficult transition is implemented in as transparent and predictable a manner as possible. On this front, I think it is safe to say that there may be room for improvement," he said in prepared remarks.

The Fed's decision to stand pat on bond buying stunned financial markets, which had anticipated it would begin to slowly reduce the program, signaling the beginning of the end to an unprecedented five years of ultra-easy monetary policy.

The Fed explained by pointing to the disappointing performance of the U.S. economy in the second half of 2013, while also noting the headwinds from restrictive U.S. fiscal policy. These could worsen as leaders in Washington fight over a deal to keep the government funded and lift the U.S. debt limit.

Investors are now focused on Fed meetings in October and December, although some economists say the central bank could hold fire until 2014 to make sure the U.S. economy has decisively regained cruising speed.

Stein, who has talked about the risk of Fed bond buying leading to asset bubbles, said that one way to reduce uncertainty and accompanying market volatility would be to link future tapering directly to economic data.

"My personal preference would be to make future step-downs a completely deterministic function of a labor market indicator, such as the unemployment rate or cumulative payroll growth over some period," Stein said. "For example, one could cut monthly purchases by a set amount for each further 10 basis point decline in the unemployment rate."

(Writing by Alister Bull in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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