Debate is heating up within the Federal Reserve over how and when to signal that the days of record-low interest rates are numbered.
A rate hike isn't imminent. But at their meeting Tuesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues will likely focus on how to telegraph that higher rates are coming once the economic recovery is more deeply rooted. Eventually, Fed policymakers will need to start bumping up rates to head off inflation.
It will be a challenging maneuver. Fed officials will want to signal a move to higher rates in advance so borrowers and investors aren't jarred. And they will need to send a signal that isn't confusing.
The Fed has held rates at a record low near zero since December 2008. Bernanke and other Fed officials have said low rates are still needed to underpin economic growth.
But they need to decide whether to keep or modify their yearlong pledge to hold rates at record lows for an "extended period." Economists generally think "extended period" means at least six more months.
The Fed could drop that commitment altogether. Or it could pledge to keep rates low only for "some time" or vow to keep "policy accommodative." Or it could change its language in some other way to stress that credit will be tightened when the time is right. Any such step would signal that the days of easy money are fading.
Inside the Fed, debate is intensifying.
Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, has pushed to change the signal. At the Fed's last meeting in late January, Hoenig dissented from the "extended period" pledge. He favored saying rates would stay low for "some time." He thought that would give the Fed more flexibility to start raising rates.
Some economists aren't ruling out a change in language at Tuesday's meeting. Others don't think a change will come until the Fed's next meeting on April 27-28.
"During the Depression, the Fed tightened policy too soon and cut off the recovery before it was self-sufficient," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors. "The Fed doesn't want to make that mistake again. I think that they are willing to stay with very easy money longer than they might normally because of all the damage that has been done to the economy."
The recession wiped out 8.4 million jobs. And with companies still wary of ramping up hiring, the unemployment rate — now at 9.7 percent — is likely to stay high.
Even though the jobless rate hasn't budged for two months and companies aren't cutting as many jobs as they did a year ago, hiring is tepid. Consumer and business spending is sufficient to keep the economy growing only modestly. The housing and commercial real-estate markets are wobbly. Lending remains tight.
"Cautiously optimistic is where the Fed is right now," said William Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock. "But it is heavy on the caution and light on the optimism."
That helps explain why the Fed is expected to keep its key rate at a record low Tuesday. It has held its target range for its bank lending rate at zero to 0.25 percent since December 2008. In response, commercial banks' prime lending rate, used to peg rates on certain credit cards and consumer loans, has remained about 3.25 percent — its lowest in decades.
Super-low rates benefit borrowers who qualify for loans and are willing to take on more debt. But they hurt savers. Low rates are especially hard on people living on fixed incomes who are earning measly returns on savings accounts and certificates of deposit.
The Fed could start boosting rates as early as June — if economic growth accelerated. A more likely time is this fall, economists say.
Investors also will be looking to see if the Fed makes any changes to an economic-support program that's lowered mortgage rates and bolstered the housing market. Under that program, the Fed is scheduled to end its mortgage-securities purchases from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac at the end of this month.
Some analysts fear that once the program ends, mortgage rates could rise. That could weaken the recovery in housing and the overall economy. The Fed has left the door open to extending the program if the economy weakens.
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