As long as expected inflation remains tame, the Fed said it could keep its key short-term rate near zero even after unemployment falls below 6.5 percent. Unemployment is now 7.7 percent.
Analysts said the Fed’s new guidance will make it easier for companies, investors and consumers to make financial decisions because they will have a clearer grasp of when borrowing costs will begin to rise.
“This approach is superior” to setting a timetable for a possible rate increase, Chairman Ben Bernanke said at a news conference after the Fed held a two-day policy meeting and issued a statement. “It is more transparent and will allow the markets to respond quickly and promptly to changes” in the Fed’s economic outlook.
Though the Fed’s low interest-rate policies are intended to boost borrowing, spending and stock prices, they also hurt millions of retirees and others who depend on income from savings.
Bernanke made clear that even after unemployment falls below 6.5 percent, the Fed might decide that it needs to keep stimulating the economy. Other economic factors will also shape its policy decisions, he said.
“The Fed has become more explicit and more transparent,” said Steven Wood, chief economist at Insight Economics. “This should provide the markets with much more clarity around monetary policy action in the upcoming year.”
In its statement, the Fed said it will also keep spending $85 billion a month on bond purchases to drive down long-term borrowing costs and stimulate economic growth.
The Fed will spend $45 billion a month on long-term Treasury purchases to replace a previous bond-purchase program of an equal size. And it will keep buying $40 billion a month in mortgage bonds.
Those purchases, and the Fed’s commitment to low rates, are intended to spur borrowing and spending in an economy still growing only modestly 3½ years after the Great Recession ended.
Still, Bernanke warned that none of the Fed’s actions could outweigh the economic pain that would be caused by sharp tax increases and government spending cuts that are set to kick in next month. The standoff between President Barack Obama and Republican lawmakers over how to resolve the “fiscal cliff” is already hurting the economy, in part by reducing consumer and business confidence, he said.
Fed policymakers are hopeful that the crisis can be resolved without significant long-term economic damage, Bernanke said. They foresee slightly faster growth next year and a gradual decline in unemployment.
Bernanke’s comments about the impact of the fiscal cliff seemed to raise some concern among investors. Stocks had risen after the Fed’s statement was released. But by the end of Bernanke’s news conference, market averages were mixed. The Dow Jones industrial average closed down about 3 points. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose fractionally.