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Federal Reserve leaves interest rates unchanged

In unexpectedly strong language, the central bank says it doesn't foresee future increases, either, citing a low danger of inflation because of high unemployment and untapped factory capacity.

November 05, 2009|Don Lee

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that it was holding short-term interest rates at near zero and would probably make no change in the foreseeable future despite the apparent end to the worst economic downturn in more than a generation.

The decision to leave monetary policy unchanged reflects a conviction among central bank officials that the nation's economy, while showing signs of renewed growth, remains too fragile to risk tightening credit now -- or for some months to come.

There had been signs of a rift developing inside the Fed over when to begin pulling back on the monetary reins in order to forestall a possible surge in inflation. But Wednesday's vote by the central bank's rate-setting committee was unanimous in favor of keeping the benchmark overnight lending rate between zero and 0.25%.

And, as it has since March, the panel said the rate was likely to remain "exceptionally low" for "an extended period of time."

While acknowledging that economic activity had continued to pick up, with consumer spending notably expanding, the Fed said the danger of rising prices was low, noting that there was still "substantial resource slack" -- namely high unemployment and unused factory capacity.

"This should underscore that the Fed feels it's still a fragile economy, and they're not going to prematurely take anything back," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial in Chicago.

Given the still-anemic condition of the economy, most analysts had expected the Fed to leave interest rates unchanged, but some had thought it might modify its language to say the low-rate policy would continue "for some time," instead of the stronger "for an extended period of time."

Such a shift, seemingly tiny, would have been seen as a way to nod to concerns among bond investors and other inflation hawks -- and to prepare financial markets for an eventual change in policy.

In addition to lowering its benchmark short-term rate, and keeping it low, the Fed's recession-fighting strategy has included extraordinary steps to ease the credit crunch and drive down long-term interest rates, including purchases of $300 billion of Treasury securities, which were completed last month.

Although many analysts have credited the Fed's measures with helping revive the economy, its actions have also led to a more-than-doubling of the central bank's balance sheet to about $2.1 trillion -- an expansion that some fear will fuel inflation.

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has insisted that once economic health returns the central bank can vacuum up that money fast enough to keep inflation in check.

Wednesday's statement shed no new light on the exit strategy. Rather, Fed officials said they would continue their plan to prop up the housing market by buying $1.25 trillion of securities backed by mortgage finance agencies including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Through late October, the Fed had purchased about $959 billion of those securities. The program is expected to be completed by the end of March.

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don.lee@latimes.com

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