WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve said Tuesday that it was closing the books on 2011, maintaining its existing efforts to increase growth but adding no reinforcement amid evidence that the American economy was chugging back toward health.
The central bank will enter next year as it entered this one, in a stance of hopeful exhaustion, optimistic the economy is gaining strength, worried about setbacks and doubtful it can do much more to hasten recovery.
Equity investors, who have been the major beneficiaries of the Fed’s efforts to help growth, immediately responded with disappointment over the absence of any clear hint of new windfalls. Major market indexes recorded quick drops, reversing early gains. The benchmark Standard &Poor’s 500-stock index fell 0.87 percent on the day.
But the Fed left open the possibility that it would take additional steps next year, including an expected effort at improving public understanding of its goals and methods to increase the impact of its policies and disarm its critics.
The Fed’s policy-making committee said its optimism about the economy was tempered by the persistence of unemployment, the blighted housing market, the deceleration of global growth and the risk of a European crash.
“The committee continues to expect a moderate pace of economic growth over coming quarters and consequently anticipates that the unemployment rate will decline only gradually,” it said in a statement. “Strains in global financial markets continue to pose significant downside risks to the economic outlook.”
The decision was supported by nine of 10 members of the Federal Open Market Committee. Charles Evans, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, once again dissented, arguing that the Fed should act immediately to help growth, fulfilling its responsibility to help the millions of Americans who cannot find jobs.
Notwithstanding the nervous twitching of stock markets, the committee’s decision to do nothing was widely anticipated. One analyst joked that the most exciting thing about the statement was the timing of its release about three minutes ahead of schedule. Another titled his note to clients, “Dull Dull Dull.”
“You could almost call it a yawner,” said Eric Stein, a fixed-income portfolio manager at Eaton Vance, a Boston investment firm. “But I think we’ll see something bigger come January. The center of the committee, despite the fact that U.S. growth is looking stronger, they’re always going to err on the side of doing more.”
The dynamics of the internal debate also will shift next year. Four of the seats on the policy-making committee are held on a rotating basis by the presidents of the Fed’s regional banks. Three of the current four have argued that the Fed already has done too much to stimulate growth, creating the largest bloc of dissenting votes on the committee since the early 1990s. Only one of their replacements is regarded as similarly likely to break ranks with the Fed’s chairman, Ben S. Bernanke.
“It certainly suggests that as we go into the new construct, you will have a more accommodative committee, a bit more proactive,” said Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at the broker-dealer Mizuho Securities USA.
Mr. Stein and other observers said they were eager to read the fuller description of this meeting that the Fed will publish on Jan. 3 because the committee had planned to discuss on Tuesday possible changes in the information that it provides to the public, including a forecast of its likely decisions about short-term interest rates.
The January meeting affords a convenient opportunity to announce such a change. Mr. Bernanke is scheduled hold a news conference after the meeting, on Jan. 25, and the Fed will release its regular forecast of other economic data.
Fed officials say such a forecast could bolster growth modestly, reducing borrowing costs for businesses and consumers, by convincing investors the central bank will keep interest rates near zero for longer than expected.
The impact would be limited because such a forecast most likely would cover three years, running through 2014, and asset prices based on investor expectations on interest rates already reflect an assumption that the Fed will keep rates near zero through the end of 2013.
Articulating its goals and methods also could help the Fed to justify any new efforts to aid growth. But such efforts, viewed as inevitable by many Fed watchers earlier this year, become less likely as the economy improves.
The statement reflected the Fed’s increased optimism, describing “some improvement” in labor markets instead of “continuing weakness.” And the Fed now appears to view the struggles of foreign economies as the greatest risk.
At the same time, officials have given no indication that they are ready to resume the discussions, suspended earlier this year, about when and how the central bank should begin to retreat from its existing efforts to stimulate growth.
The Fed said that it would continue an effort to cut borrowing costs for businesses and consumers by investing in long-term Treasury securities, using proceeds from the sale of its existing holdings of short-term Treasuries.
The December meeting convened on the third anniversary of the Fed’s decision to hold short-term interest rates near zero, a policy it has said that it plans to continue through at least the middle of 2013 and possibly longer.