Fed holds interest rates steady again

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Short-term interest rates were held steady again by the nation’s central bank in a move that might encourage consumers to use their credit cards and home equity lines of credit.

The target federal funds rate remains 5.25 percent, and the prime rate remains 8.25 percent. Most variable-rate credit cards and home equity lines of credit are indexed to the prime rate, so their rates should stay the same. Yields on certificates of deposit probably will remain about the same.

At some point, a pause is no longer just a pause and is something more. The Federal Reserve’s rate-setting Open Market Committee might have reached that point. After raising short-term rates about every six weeks for two years, the panel has kept rates untouched twice in a row now.

It’s tricky to predict how the panel’s decision will affect rates on longer-term debt, such as for mortgages, auto loans and home equity loans. Long-term interest rates respond only indirectly to the Fed’s rate moves and instead go up and down according to investors’ inflation expectations. The Fed doesn’t think inflation is a serious threat, and neither do the people making up the bond market, and that belief keeps long-term interest rates in check.

The Fed said economic growth is slowing down, “partly reflecting a cooling of the housing market,” but that prices for other goods have been rising. “However, inflation pressures seem likely to moderate over time, reflecting reduced impetus from energy prices, contained inflation expectations, and the cumulative effects of monetary policy actions and other factors restraining aggregate demand.”

The panel said it might have to raise rates again in the future, and the vote to keep rates the same was not unanimous — Jeffrey M. Lacker, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, voted for a quarter-point increase.

In the August policy statement, the central bank noted a “gradual” cooling of the housing market. This one omitted that word, signaling a possible concern among the bankers that the housing market is cooling more rapidly than they expected.

Most experts had predicted the Fed would maintain its pause in changing rates. “I think a second meeting where they’re pausing might really send the signal to consumers that maybe the worst is over in terms of interest rate increases and that things will be more stable,” says Kenneth Thomas, a lecturer in finance at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Has Bernanke drawn the line?
If Thomas had his druthers, short-term rates would be higher by a quarter- or half-point. He believes the Fed and its chairman, Ben Bernanke, made a mistake by not raising rates one last time in August and then declaring an end to the rate-hike cycle. But what’s done is done, Thomas says: Bernanke couldn’t stain his credibility by raising rates at this meeting, so soon after halting the string of 17 consecutive increases.

“A big part of this decision was made at the last meeting,” Thomas says. “Once you basically draw the line, which is what he did when he stopped the increases, he’d have to have seen significant changes in the data,” to resume the rate hikes.

The Fed raises interest rates to fight inflation, and it drops rates to keep the economy from slowing down too much. When it keeps rates the same, that’s a sign that the Fed believes the economy isn’t growing too fast or too slow.

Inflation still worrisome
Members of the rate-setting committee would like to maintain an inflation rate of between 1 percent and 2 percent a year. Prices are rising faster than that. Core consumer prices rose 2.8 percent in the 12 months ending in August and rose at an annualized rate of 3.1 percent from June through August.

“I don’t get upset about that, but if you’re an inflation hawk, it’s a full percentage point above the target rate,” says Dean Baker, author of the book “Getting Prices Right: The Battle Over the Consumer Price Index.”

Baker believes the rate-setting committee doesn’t know exactly what to do. The Fed pumped air into the housing bubble, Baker says, when it encouraged mortgage rates to fall to super-low levels three years ago. Now house prices are falling in some areas and stabilizing in others. That’s a necessary development, Baker says, but some homeowners will feel some pain because of it.

“From my vantage point, I want it to happen quickly, because you have to get through it and there’s no point in dragging out the process. But I don’t think they have that view,” Baker says. “My guess is they just decided the risk far outweighs the benefits — that you accelerate the collapse of the bubble, basically.”

Hiss vs. pop
Bottom line: “They don’t want to be blamed for the bubble pop,” Baker says.

In recent speeches, Fed officials have said that they don’t expect house prices to fall nationwide, but if they do, spending could be depressed in other sectors of the economy. Policymakers hope and expect house prices to stabilize and for the inflation rate to fall as the lagging effects of 17 straight rate increases take hold.

Banks charge the federal funds rate to one another for overnight loans. The Fed controls the federal funds rate indirectly, by selling and buying securities to add, and subtract cash from the banking system. The prime rate is 3 percentage points higher and moves up and down with the federal funds rate.