Federal Reserve: Key interest rate is finally raised from near zero

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WASHINGTON >> The Federal Reserve is raising interest rates from record lows set at the depths of the 2008 financial crisis, a shift that heralds modestly higher rates on some loans.

The Fed coupled its first rate hike in nine years with a signal that further increases will likely be made slowly as the economy strengthens further and inflation rises from undesirably low levels.

The central bank said in a statement after its latest meeting that it was lifting its key rate by a quarter-point to a range of 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent. Its move ends an extraordinary seven-year period of near-zero borrowing rates. But the Fed's statement suggested that rates would remain historically low well into the future, saying it expects "only gradual increases."

"The Fed reaffirmed that the pace of rate hikes would be slow," James Marple, senior economist at TD Economics wrote in a research note. "The Fed's expectations for rate hikes next year are set alongside a relatively cautious and entirely achievable economic outlook."

Wednesday's action conveys the central bank's belief that the economy has finally regained enough strength 6 1/2 years after the Great Recession ended to withstand modestly higher borrowing rates.

Confidence

"The Fed's decision today reflects our confidence in the U.S. economy," Chair Janet Yellen said at a news conference.

Stocks rose after the statement was released as Yellen began her news conference. The Dow Jones industrial average, which had been up modestly before the announcement, was up nearly 200 points in mid-afternoon trading.

The bond market didn't react much. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note held steady at 2.28 percent, little changed from early in the day.

Rates on mortgages and car loans aren't expected to rise much soon. The Fed's benchmark rate doesn't directly affect them. Long-term mortgages, for example, tend to track 10-year U.S. Treasury yields, which will likely stay low as long as inflation does and investors keep buying Treasurys.

But rates on some other loans, like credit cards and home equity credit lines, will likely rise, though probably only slightly as long as the Fed's rate hikes remain modest.

Shortly after the Fed's announcement, major banks began announcing that they were raising their prime lending rate from 3.25 percent to 3.50 percent. The prime rate is a benchmark for some types of consumer loans such as home equity loans. Wells Fargo was the first bank to announce the rate hike.

Among other things, the Fed's low-interest rate policies have helped jump-start auto sales, which are on track to reach a record 17.5 million this year. And the Fed's first hike may not slow them.

Steven Szakaly, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, says dealers will press financing companies to keep loan rates low. And competition for buyers will spur them to take other steps to keep rates low.


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