WASHINGTON - The Federal Reserve pledged yesterday to hold interest rates at a record low to drive down double-digit unemployment and keep the economic recovery going.
The central bank noted that the economy was growing, however slowly. And turning more upbeat, it pointed to a slowing pace of layoffs.
Wanting to maintain that momentum, Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and his colleagues gave no signal that they were considering raising rates any time soon. They said consumer spending remained sluggish, the job market weak, wage growth slight, and credit tight. Companies are still wary of hiring, they said.
So the Fed kept its target range for its bank lending rate at zero to 0.25 percent, where it has been for a year.
It also repeated its pledge, first made in March, to keep rates at "exceptionally low levels" for an "extended period."
In response, commercial banks' prime lending rate, used to peg rates on home-equity loans, certain credit cards, and other consumer loans, will remain at 3.25 percent, the lowest in decades.
Superlow interest rates are good for the economy because they encourage borrowers who can get a loan and are willing to take on more debt. That enables businesses to build new plants, buy new equipment, and add more workers, and it prompts individuals to buy cars, homes, and other items.
But those same low rates hurt savers. They are especially hard on people living on fixed incomes who now are earning measly returns on savings accounts and certificates of deposit.
Michael Darda, chief economist at MKM Partners L.L.C., predicted rates would stay where they are for most of next year.
"We believe the Fed is essentially out of the picture until late 2010 or early 2011," he said. The Fed's "optimism was constrained by a long list of caveats," he added.
Noting the stabilized financial markets, the Fed said it expected to wind down several emergency-lending programs when they are set to expire next year. That seemed to strike a confident note that the Fed thinks it can slowly lift supports it provided at the height of the financial crisis in 2008 and early this year.
It made no major changes to a program, set to expire in March, to help further drive down mortgage rates.
That is paying off: Rates on 30-year loans averaged 4.81 percent, Freddie Mac reported last week. That's down from 5.47 percent last year.
The Fed said it had leeway to hold rates at the current level because it expected that inflation would remain "subdued for some time."
Bernanke has made clear his No. 1 task is sustaining the recovery.
In the Fed's Words
From yesterday's Federal Open Market Committee statement on interest rates and the economy:
The deterioration in the labor market is abating. The housing sector has shown some signs of improvement.
Financial conditions have become more supportive of economic growth.
Businesses are still cutting back on fixed investment, though at a slower pace, and they remain reluctant to add to payrolls.
Inflation will remain subdued for some time.
Economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period.