QE3 Watch: Will Slowing Jobs Picture Spur More Fed Stimulus?

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Friday’s jobs report painted a disappointing picture about the U.S. employment situation, but it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Last week, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke warned that the economy is not growing fast enough to sustain the jobs momentum of the last few months. The question now is whether Fed policymakers feel the stalling jobs picture warrants a third round of Fed monetary stimulus, or quantitative easing (QE3).

The prospects of further easing seemed to dim earlier in the week after payroll services firm ADP estimated that 209,000 jobs were created last month, and the Labor Dept. said that initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell to a seasonally adjusted 357,000, the lowest level since April 2008. On Tuesday, the Fed released minutes from its last meeting suggesting that as the economy improves, policy-makers are cooling to a third round of action.

But the official Labor Dept. unemployment report — which was roundly viewed as disappointing — seemed to revive the QE3 chatter. Many economic analysts suggested that while the weak jobs report doesn’t ensure another round of Fed stimulus, in which the central bank would buy up bonds, it does mean that the Fed will be weighing that option closely.

“In terms of policy, we do not believe this number alone is sufficient to propel the Fed into action at the April FOMC meeting (April 24-25),” Michael Gapen, an economist at Barclay’s Capital Research, wrote in a note to clients. “That said, the soft employment numbers certainly leave the door open for further accommodation and may shift the decision point to the June FOMC as the Fed continues to monitor the incoming data.”

(More: U.S. Economy Added Only 120,000 Jobs in March, Missing Estimates)

There appears to be a decidedly mixed appetite at the central bank for another round of easing. Last week, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke hinted that QE3 remains on the table in a speech because stronger growth — which Fed action could help trigger — is needed to keep the economy creating jobs. “Further significant improvements in the unemployment rate will likely require a more rapid expansion of production and demand from consumers and businesses, a process that can be supported by continued accommodative policies,” Bernanke said.

Still, some Fed officials and outside experts remain skeptical of another round of easing. Earlier this week, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard said the central back should take a cautious approach on more stimulus, lest the government’s policy overreach and risk adding inflationary pressure to the economy.

And Mark Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com, put the prospects of QE3 at under 50%. “It’s certainly on the table but not because of this,” he told CNBC. “The pressure for QE is really low. You can’t dismiss it, but I don’t think they yet have enough evidence to engage in QE. It’s not just the jobs data. The inflation data is not consistent with QE. The economy may slow enough this spring into summer, where they decide another round of QE is necessary, but now I’d say no.”

All eyes will be on next month’s report — if it’s another disappointing showing, the Fed will no doubt feel growing pressure to act.