By Ann Saphir
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A top Federal Reserve official said on Friday he was open to reducing the U.S. central bank's bond buying stimulus program this month, although he would like to see a stronger labor market first.
Chicago Fed President Charles Evans said hiring data released earlier in the day showed the economy was improving, but he wasn't fully convinced it was time to reduce the pace of bond buying.
"I'll be open-minded," Evans said in an interview with Reuters Insider when asked about the December meeting. "Everything else (being) equal, I would like to see a couple of months of good numbers, but this was improvement."
Fed policymakers meet on December 17-18 and the future of their $85-billion-a-month bond-buying program looms large on the agenda, after officials said at their last meeting they would look to scaling back the stimulus in the next few months.
The program aims to help the economy by making it cheaper for businesses to invest and workers to buy homes but several years of slow, steady job growth, as well as concerns that the bond-buying might be fueling bubbles in corners of the economy, suggest the purchases may be reaching their use-by date.
Labor Department data showed that the jobless rate fell in November to a five-year low at 7 percent and employers added more new jobs to their payrolls than expected.
Evans is a voting member on the Fed's policy-setting committee this year and has been an outspoken advocate for the institution's efforts to nurse the economy back to health following the 2007-09 recession.
In the interview, he reiterated his view that the Fed should provide more clarity about the future path of interest rates, which could compensate for an eventual tapering of bond purchases.
One way to do this, he said, would be for the Fed to promise not to raise interest rates until the jobless rate falls to 6 percent. Currently, the Fed has pledged to keep rates near zero at least until unemployment hits 6.5 percent, as long as inflation does not threaten to rise above 2.5 percent.
If policymakers lowered the threshold at the same time as they start to reduce bond purchases, he said, the central bank would be "maintaining the same level of accommodation."
Earlier this year, when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke signaled the Fed was starting to consider winding down the bond buys, investors pushed up borrowing costs so much that some worried this could undercut the still-fragile recovery.
Startled Fed officials have since stressed that reducing bond buying does not mean they will raise rates sooner than necessary, and Evans said markets were getting that message.
"The key thing is provide a sufficient amount of confidence to the public and the markets that we are going to continue to provide as much accommodation as is necessary," he said.
While encouraged about progress on the jobs front, Evans said he was "certainly nervous" about inflation that continues to run well below the Fed's 2 percent target.
In the year through October, the gauge of inflation targeted by the Fed rose just 0.7 percent. Another reading that strips out food and energy rose a little more quickly, gaining 1.1 percent. Evans said this core reading was a better measure of the inflation outlook, but it was troubling nonetheless.
"We need to defend our inflation goal from below as well as from above," Evans said.
(Reporting by Ann Saphir; Writing by Jason Lange in Washington; Editing by Krista Hughes and Chizu Nomiyama)