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Fed vows low rates for ‘extended period’

The Federal Reserve has decided to hold interest rates at a record low and pledged to keep them there for an "extended period" to nurture the economic recovery and lower high unemployment.
Image: File image of Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke speaking during a presentation at the American Economic Association conference in Atlanta
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues on the Open Market Committee said they would keep interest rates at record lows for 'an extended period.'TAMI CHAPPELL / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Federal Reserve pledged Wednesday to hold rates at record lows to nurture the U.S. economic recovery and lower unemployment.

Its decision, however, drew a dissent from one member, signaling the Fed's challenge in deciding when to pull back stimulus money it pumped into the economy.

The Fed's statement sketched a mixed picture of the economy. Pointing to weakness, it noted that bank lending is contracting. And it dropped a reference in its previous statement to an improving housing market.

But on the positive side, the Fed said business spending on equipment and software seems to be rising. And it said economic activity "continues to strengthen."

The Fed said it still expects to end a $1.25 trillion program aimed at driving down mortgage rates as scheduled on March 31. Yet it reiterated that it remains open to changing that timetable if necessary.

Reports on home sales this week pointed to a still-fragile housing market.

The Fed member who opposed the decision to retain a pledge to keep rates at record lows for an "extended period" was Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Hoenig said the economy has improved sufficiently to drop the pledge, which has been in place for nearly a year.

With the U.S. economy on the mend, the Fed this year can focus on how and when to pull back the stimulus money pumped out to fight the financial crisis. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will lead that effort now that his prospects for another four-year term have improved. The Senate is slated to vote on his confirmation on Thursday. Bernanke's term expires Jan. 31.

Bernanke and his colleagues will need to tread delicately. Reeling in the stimulus too soon risks short-circuiting the recovery, sending unemployment higher. If they move too late, they could unleash inflation.

Taking stock of the economy, Fed policymakers said the deterioration in the job market is easing and consumers are spending moderately. But they warned that double-digit unemployment, lackluster income growth and tight credit could crimp that spending.

Against that backdrop, the Fed kept its target range for its bank lending rate at zero to 0.25 percent, where it's stood since December 2008.

In response, commercial banks' prime lending rate, used to peg rates on home equity loans, certain credit cards and other consumer loans, will remain about 3.25 percent. That's its lowest point in decades.

Super-low interest rates are good for borrowers who can get a loan and are willing to take on more debt. But those same low rates hurt savers. They're especially hard on people living on fixed incomes who are earning measly returns on savings accounts and certificates of deposit.

In its statement, the Fed says it can keep rates low because inflation shouldn't be a problem. It said "slack" in the economy — referring to factories operating at less than full throttle and the weak labor market — will prevent companies from jacking up prices.

Nonetheless, the Fed "sees the light at the end of the tunnel for the economy," said Sung Won Sohn, economist at California State University. "Uncertainties in the economy have diminished."

With credit clogs easing, the Fed said Wednesday that it plans to wind down by March 8 an emergency lending program — dubbed the Term Auction Facility — that provides banks with low-cost loans.

It also repeated its intentions of dismantling a handful of other emergency lending programs set up during the financial crisis on Feb. 1, when they are set to expire.

Most of them haven't been used in months by banks or other firms as credit conditions have improved. Those programs include Fed efforts to backstop the "commercial paper" market. This involves short-term financing used by companies for expenses such as salaries and supplies. Another program slated to end bolstered the money market mutual fund industry.

Fed programs to provide emergency loans to investment firms and another program for financial institutions to swap risky securities for super-safe Treasury securities also will end Feb. 1. The Fed also made clear that it will be wind down by then a "swap" program with the European Central Bank, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and the Swiss National Bank to provide them with U.S. dollars, which had been in high demand during the crisis.

The end of these programs shouldn't have much economic impact because most have fallen out of use.

A recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s is under way, helped by the enormous government stimulus aid. But some question whether the recovery can last once those supports are pulled. And unemployment, now at 10 percent, is likely to remain high and drag on the recovery. Meanwhile, lending is still not back to normal. Banks are still failing.

On Thursday, the Senate has scheduled a vote on his confirmation for a second term. The vote requires a 60-vote majority in the 100-member Senate to overcome procedural obstacles from Bernanke's Senate critics. But Bernanke appears to have solidified his support in the Senate after the White House stepped in to quell rising opposition late last week.

Opponents — a mix of Democrats and Republicans — are angry over the Fed's role in bailing out Wall Street firms. They also blame Bernanke for failing to detect and address problems, especially a housing bubble, that led to the crisis.