WASHINGTON–The U.S. Federal Reserve pledged Wednesday to hold rates at record lows to nurture the economic recovery and lower unemployment. But its decision drew a dissent from one member, signalling 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 bank lending is contracting. It also dropped a reference in a previous statement to an improving housing market – reports on home sales this week pointed to a still-fragile 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 (U.S.) program aimed at driving down mortgage rates on March 31. Yet it reiterated that it remains open to changing that timetable if necessary.
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. He said the economy has improved sufficiently to drop the pledge, which has been in place for nearly a year.
With the economy on the mend, the Fed this year can focus on how and when to pull back the stimulus money. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke will lead that effort now his prospects for another four-year term have improved. The Senate is slated to vote on his confirmation on Thursda.
Bernanke and his colleagues will need to tread delicately. Reeling in the stimulus too soon risks short-circuiting recovery, sending unemployment higher. If they move too late, they could unleash inflation.
Against that backdrop, the Fed kept its target range for its bank lending rate at zero to 0.25 per cent, where it has stood since December 2008. Commercial banks' prime lending will remain about 3.25 per cent – its lowest point in decades.