Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke speaks during the Federal Reserve Conference in Washington this past November. - AP

Fed likely to keep interest rates at record low until at least 2014

WASHINGTON — It could be quite a while yet before the Federal Reserve starts raising the interest rates it's kept at record lows for three years.

Maybe not before 2014.

That's the thinking of many analysts as the Fed prepares this week to provide more explicit clues about how long short-term rates likely will stay near zero.

Starting when their policy meeting ends Wednesday, Fed members plan to forecast the direction of those rates four times a year. The clearer guidance will accompany the Fed's usual quarterly predictions of growth, unemployment and inflation.

The new hints about rates are part of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's drive to make its communications with the public more transparent. The more immediate goal is to assure consumers and investors that they'll be able to borrow cheaply well into the future.

No announcements are expected Wednesday of any further Fed action to try to lift the economy. Most analysts think Fed members want to put off any new steps, such as more bond purchases, to see if the economy can extend the gains it's made in recent months.

Instead, expectations are focused on the likelihood that the Fed's first quarterly forecast of interest rates will signal no rate increase is probable until at least 2014. That would mark a shift. Since August, the Fed has said in policy statements that it planned to keep its benchmark rate at a record low until at least mid-2013, as long as the economy remained weak.

Here's why analysts expect the Fed to signal that most members see no increase before 2014:

On Wednesday, the Fed will use two charts to signify the thinking of each of its 17 policy committee members about rates.

One chart will illustrate how high each committee member thinks the Fed's benchmark rate will be at the end of 2012, 2013 and 2014.

A second chart will show how many members think the first rate increase will occur in each year from 2012 through 2016.

The charts won't identify any member by name.

Because the range of options extends as far as 2016, many analysts think the consensus view within the Fed is to avoid any rate increase before 2014 — the average of the possible options.

"Just seeing that the choice of a year for the first hike in the Fed funds rate goes all the way out to 2016 makes us think there are at least a few members of the committee who don't want to raise rates until the unemployment rate gets back down to 5 percent or 6 percent," said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi.

"We guess there will be some hawks looking for a hike in 2013 and some doves thinking more like 2015," Rupkey said. "The weighted average is likely to be 2014."

A further clue to the Fed's plans will come in its economic projections. In its last projections in November, the Fed forecast that the economy would grow between 2.5 percent and 2.9 percent in 2012. That figure exceeds the forecasts of many private economists. Should the Fed reduce its expectations for growth, that could signal that it's prepared to do more for the economy.

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