WASHINGTON — —
Amid the political rancor over Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke's bid for a second term, central bank officials encountered some dissension in their first policy-setting meeting of the year, even as they affirmed their pledge to keep interest rates at near-zero for "an extended period."
For the first time in a year, the Fed's monetary policy committee's statement, issued at the conclusion of its two-day meeting Wednesday, came with a dissenting vote. Thomas M. Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City, voted against the policy action, indicating that economic and financial conditions had improved enough that the statement to maintain the benchmark short-term rate for an extended period was unwarranted.
Some analysts interpret "extended period" as meaning at least six months, but nobody knows for sure. And Hoenig's opposition, which had surfaced in a speech he gave last month, didn't seem to change most economists' forecasts that the Fed would probably begin to raise the federal funds rate late this year - at the earliest.
Nonetheless, the dissenting voice could presage an earlier-than-expected increase in interest rates in a pre-emptive move to stave off long-term inflation or inflation expectations.
The federal funds rate, or the rate on overnight bank loans, is the basis for the prime rate, currently at 3.25 percent, which is used in setting credit card rates and home equity and automobile loans.
Taking stock of the economy, Fed policymakers said the deterioration in the job market is easing and consumers are spending moderately. But they warned that double-digit unemployment, lackluster income growth and tight credit could crimp that spending.
Against that backdrop, the Fed kept its target range for its bank lending rate at zero to 0.25 percent, where it has stood since December 2008.
The Fed reiterated its commitment to wind down some emergency lending programs that were launched to prop up financial markets during the recession.
It still expects to end a $1.25 trillion program aimed at driving down mortgage rates as scheduled on March 31. Yet the Fed reiterated that it remains open to changing that timetable if necessary. The program was aimed at lowering mortgage rates and boosting the housing market.
With the economy on the mend, the Fed this year can focus on how and when to pull back the stimulus money pumped out to manage the financial crisis. Bernanke and his colleagues need to tread delicately. Reeling in the stimulus too soon risks short-circuiting the recovery, sending unemployment higher. If they move too late, they could unleash inflation.
At this point, most in the Fed's 10-member committee, including Bernanke, clearly remain more concerned about the durability of the economic recovery - particularly given the sluggish labor market - than the risks of inflation, which has been running at below the Fed's target of 2 percent.
In Wednesday's statement, the Fed removed the language it had kept for some time that economic activity was likely to remain weak, replacing it with a note of cautious optimism - that "economic recovery is likely to be moderate for a time."
The statement from the Fed monetary policymakers, who meet eight times a year, did not surprise analysts. Although the committee's every word is often parsed by Fed watchers and market analysts, that has been overshadowed by the recent drama over Bernanke's confirmation for renomination as chairman.
Bernanke has been appointed by President Barack Obama to serve a second four-year term, but amid populist uproar over the Fed's bailout of big financial institutions and complaints that it failed to protect ordinary homeowners and the economy, a growing number of senators stepped forward in recent days to announce opposition to Bernanke.
Even so, after heavy lobbying by the White House, Bernanke appears to have the 60 votes needed to win confirmation. The vote is scheduled for today, three days before his term expires.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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