By Tom Petruno

RISMEDIA, March 18, 2010—(MCT)—Steady as it goes, Federal Reserve policymakers recently declared in their post-meeting statement. They left their benchmark short-term interest rate unchanged in the range of zero to 0.25% and once again pledged to keep it low for an “extended period”—retaining the phrase they’ve used for the past year.

The central bank continued to sound relatively upbeat about the economy, saying the data it looks at suggest that “economic activity has continued to strengthen and that the labor market is stabilizing.”

The Federal Reserve also said it would end, on schedule, its program of buying mortgage-backed bonds to help keep home loan rates low. That program will conclude at the end of this month when the Federal Reserve’s mortgage bond holdings reach the $1.25 trillion limit it set last year.

Even though the market obviously knows that the end of Federal Reserve bond purchases is near, average 30-year mortgage rates have remained around 5% for the last nine weeks, according to the weekly Freddie Mac survey.

As for the Federal Reserve’s benchmark short-term rate, just how long will that “extended period” of near-zero rates last? Chris Rupkey, an economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, says some Federal Reserve policymakers have suggested that the phrase equates to three to four Fed meetings, which take place about every six weeks. If that’s true, “This means the Fed consensus thinks they will not need to move interest rates until the September 21 meeting,” Rupkey said.

For a second straight meeting, one Fed official dissented in the statement. Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, objected to the pledge on low rates. Hoenig “believed that continuing to express the expectation of exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period was no longer warranted because it could lead to the buildup of financial imbalances and increase risks to longer-run macroeconomic and financial stability,” the Federal Reserve said.

In other words, he’s worried about inflation. But he has been unable to persuade any of the other nine members of the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate committee to come over to his side.

(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

http://rismedia.com/2010-03-17/federal-reserve-vows-to-keep-interest-rate-low/