Fed more bullish on recovery

Central bank raises economic growth forecast, trims unemployment rate estimate.

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By Chris Isidore, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The Federal Reserve on Tuesday raised its estimate for economic growth next year and forecast lower unemployment ahead, although the jobless rate will stay uncomfortably high for at least the next three years.

The projections were included in the minutes of the Fed's Nov. 3 and 4 meeting. The forecast shows the central bank expects gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the nation's economic activity, to grow between 2.5% to 3.5% in 2010. That's a bit more bullish than the 2.1% to 3.3% growth it had forecast for the period back in June.

The unemployment rate, which hit 10.2% in October according to the Labor Department's latest reading, is expected to improve to between 9.3% to 9.7% for all of 2010. The Fed's June forecast was for 2010 unemployment between 9.5% to 9.8%.

The central bank's forecasts don't show the labor market getting a lot better in the next few years. Its 2011 forecast is for unemployment between 8.2% to 8.6%, while 2012 unemployment is expected to be between 6.8% to 7.5%, still above the average 6% annual unemployment rate recorded by the Labor Department over the last 30 years.

Going forward from 2012, the forecast is for the unemployment rate to improve to between 5% to 5.2%, levels not seen since the first few months of the latest recession. But that long-term employment outlook is slightly more bearish than the Fed's previous estimate of a 4.8% to 5% long-term unemployment rate.

Keith Hembre, chief economist First American Funds, said the slightly more optimistic numbers in the forecast are more bullish than the commentary in the minutes, which discuss many areas of weakness and uncertainty about the state of the recovery.

"They've had a tendency to be overly optimistic (in the numerical forecasts), and that's likely the case again today," he said. For example, a year ago the Fed's forecast was projecting that unemployment in 2009 would come in at between 7.1% to 7.6%. Unemployment hit the upper end of that forecast, 7.6% in January and has risen steadily from there.

Hembre said the slightly more bullish numbers from the Fed shouldn't be taken as a sign that the central bank is getting close to raising rates or removing other programs it has put in place to pump trillions of cash into the economy.

While Fed officials have said they believe that the recession that started in December 2007 likely ended at some point this summer, there have been repeated warnings that growth would be somewhat sluggish going forward. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke recently said economic headwinds, including tight credit and continued weakness in the labor market would stop growth "from being as robust as we would hope."

The Fed's forecast comes the same day the Commerce Department lowered its estimate for the third quarter's GDP growth rate to 2.8% from its earlier reading of 3.5%.

Despite the lower unemployment estimates released Tuesday, the minutes they were attached to said that Fed "staff boosted its projection for the unemployment rate over the next several years." Those projections were more detailed than the annual estimates spelled out in the summary.

The Fed policymakers were particularly concerned that the forecasts were more uncertain than normal, and they were worried about a sluggish recovery.

"Business contacts continued to report plans to be cautious in hiring and capital spending even as demand for their products increased," according to the minutes.

But Fed policymakers seemed to be more optimistic than they had been at their late September meeting, when they believed there was a greater risk of the economy not living up to the forecasts. Now they believe there is roughly equal chance that the economy could do better than expected as they are worried about it falling short. To top of page

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