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Fed Taper Could Wait Until December or Later: Neil Irwin

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If not now, when? That's the question many economists and investors have been asking about Fed policy since the central bank decided Wednesday not to taper its $85 billion worth of monthly asset purchases.

In its statement, the Fed said that "tightening of financial conditions observed in recent months, if sustained, could slow the pace of improvement in the economy and labor market." So it decided to wait for "more evidence that progress will be sustained before adjusting the pace of its purchases."

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Neil Irwin, columnist at the Washington Post and author of the book The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire, says "the earliest" the Fed could taper would be in October, at its next meeting, but it could wait until its "December meeting or even after that."

"The Fed wants to make clear they're not on a preset time schedule," says Irwin. "They're looking at the data, at what's hanging over the U.S. economy and trying to make their judgments based on that."

In the meantime, the Fed confused the financial markets by sending signals that convinced many that the tapering would start in September. That really was a "communications failure by the Federal Reserve," says Irwin.

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The December Fed meeting is expected to be Bernanke's last, before his term ends on January 31, 2014. And that begs another question: Who will succeed Bernanke as Fed chair? The White House favorite was ostensibly former Obama economic advisor Larry Summers, who was also Treasury Secretary under President Clinton. He bowed out after weeks of criticism from many economists--over 500 signed a letter to the White House opposing Summers--and from some members of Congress, leaving Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen as the new frontrunner.

Signals from the White House this week suggest it's "very likely to be Janet Yellen," says Irwin. "It would be very surprising at this point if they went in another direction." But Irwin says the White House should get to it already. "Confirmation isn't always the simplest thing in Washington...You don't want to risk having a snafu where you don't have a Fed chairman for a while."

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