WASHINGTON — In a move that could send interest rates higher, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke ended weeks of speculation Wednesday by saying the Federal Reserve will likely slow its bond-buying program this year and end it next year because the economy is strengthening.
The Fed’s purchases of Treasury and mortgage bonds have helped keep long-term interest rates at record lows. A pullback in its extraordinary $85 billion-a-month program would likely mean higher rates on mortgages and other consumer and business loans.
Anticipating higher rates, investors reacted Wednesday by selling both stocks and bonds. The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 206 points. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.35 percent. In early May, it was 1.63 percent.
Investors have been selling bonds and driving up yields since last month after vague signals from the Fed that higher long-term rates might be coming.
After a two-day policy meeting, the Fed upgraded its outlook for unemployment and economic growth. In a statement, the Fed said the “downside risks to the outlook” had diminished since fall. Fed members voted to continue the pace of the bond-buying program for now.
At a news conference afterward, Bernanke said the Fed would slow its bond buying later this year as long as the economy sustained its improvement.
He said the pullback in purchases would occur in “measured steps” and could end by the middle of 2014.