The minutes, mistakenly released hours earlier than planned, show officials debated at the March meeting whether or not to begin winding down the bond-buying after the middle of the year. "All but a few" Fed officials agreed that the programme should continue "at least through midyear". But a larger split is emerging among officials over how the Fed should proceed after that.
The central bank accidentally sent the market-sensitive minutes to an email list of congressional staffers and trade lobbyists on Tuesday. When the mistake was discovered, the Fed put out the minutes at 9am on Wednesday, instead of waiting for the usual 2pm release time.
According to the minutes, "several participants" continue to believe that the benefits of the massive bond-buying programme exceed the costs, and that "additional purchases would be necessary to achieve a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market."
"In contrast, a couple of participants indicated that the committee could best foster its dual objectives and limit the potential costs of the program by beginning to taper its purchases before midyear or by ending purchases altogether," the minutes said.
The Federal Open Markets Committee's (FOMC) participants were generally more upbeat about the economy but noted that fiscal policy, in the wake of the so-called sequester budget cuts, had become more restrictive.
"Participants judged that the economy had returned to moderate growth following a pause late last year, and a few noted that the downside risks may have diminished," according to the minutes. Housing and the jobs market both appeared to be on the mend, members noted.
In a note to clients Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist at BTIG, noted that Fed officials were concerned not only about the effectiveness of the bond programme in driving down unemployment but by "the risks and costs of purchases". Some Fed officials, including St Louis Fed president James Bullard, have suggested the Fed should scale back its massive buying programme.
The Fed meeting came before March's disappointing jobs figures. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US added just 88,000 new jobs in March, less than half the figure economists had been expecting.
The number has fueled fears of a "spring swoon" – a slowdown in the economic recovery following a pick-up over the winter. The US has experienced similar swoons in the past three years.
Greenhaus said: "In the end though, we know that the Fed is going to taper asset purchases, the only question is when. If these minutes are to be believed, then sometime over the next several meetings, this process could begin (presumably by the end of the summer).
"However, the degree to which recent data weakening has reversed some of the tapering momentum remains to be seen. If the data picks back up, and no spring swoon materializes, it seems fair to say that by the end of the summer, the Fed will be buying less than $85bn in securities each month."
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