c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve is still waiting for clear evidence that the economy can grow decently without its help.

The Fed’s widely expected announcement Wednesday that it would press ahead with its stimulus campaign of asset purchases and low interest rates reflected the reality that the nation’s central bankers gained little clarity in the six weeks since their last meeting, in part because the government shutdown delayed and distorted key economic indicators.

The statement, issued after a scheduled two-day meeting of its policymaking committee, amounted to a declaration that the Fed is not yet ready to decide, and it shed little light on how soon changes may come.

The Fed maintained its optimistic assessment of “growing underlying strength in the broader economy,” contrasting the recovery of the private sector with the continued drag of federal spending cuts. It said that the availability of jobs was improving and that it expected inflation to rebound from its sluggish pace. Notably, it made no direct mention of the shutdown.

But despite the relatively sunny forecast, largely unchanged from the Fed’s last meeting in September, Fed officials remain reluctant to pull back. As a result, the central bank will continue to add $85 billion a month to its portfolio of Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities.

And the Fed, if anything, has reinforced its commitment to hold short-term interest rates near zero through next year and well into 2015.

“Taking into account the extent of federal fiscal retrenchment over the past year, the committee sees the improvement in economic activity and labor market conditions since it began its asset purchase program as consistent with growing underlying strength in the broader economy,” the Federal Open Market Committee said. “However, the committee decided to await more evidence that progress will be sustained before adjusting the pace of its purchases.”

Analysts and investors reacted to the statement as moderately increasing the chances that the Fed would begin to retreat, or taper back on its purchases, in December, when the committee holds its final scheduled meeting of the year. Stocks fell slightly. Yet most analysts said they continued to regard the Fed as more likely to wait until the spring.

“This is a somewhat hawkish statement, but we don’t think it’s so hawkish as to change our expectations for a first tapering in April,” Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JPMorgan Chase, wrote to clients.