WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve on Wednesday sent its strongest signal of confidence in the U.S. economy since the Great Recession, deciding that the nation's economic prospects are finally bright enough to withstand a slight pullback in stimulus spending.
Yet the Fed also made clear that it will keep supporting an economy that remains less than fully healthy. It will continue to keep interest rates low and try to boost unusually low inflation, which can be a drag on spending and borrowing.
At his final news conference as Fed chairman before he leaves in January, Ben Bernanke managed a delicate balance: He announced a long-awaited and long-feared reduction in the stimulus. Yet he did so while convincing investors that the Fed would continue to bolster the economy indefinitely. Wall Street roared its approval.
In a statement after a two-day policy meeting, the Fed said it would trim its $85 billion a month in bond purchases by $10 billion starting in January. Bernanke said the bank expects to make "similar moderate" cuts in its purchases if economic gains continue.
At the same time, the Fed strengthened its commitment to record-low short-term rates. It said for the first time that it plans to hold its key short-term rate near zero "well past" the time when unemployment falls below 6.5 percent. Unemployment is now 7 percent.
The Fed's bond purchases have been intended to drive down long-term borrowing rates by increasing demand for bonds. The prospect of a lower pace of purchases could mean higher loan rates over time.
Nevertheless, investors seemed elated by the Fed's finding that the economy has steadily strengthened, by its firm commitment to low short-term rates and by the only slight amount by which it's paring the bond purchases.
"We're really at a point where we're getting to the self-sustaining recovery that the Fed has been talking about," Scott Anderson, chief economist of Bank of the West. "It really seems like that's going to come together in 2014."
The Fed's move "eliminates the uncertainty as to whether or when the Fed will taper and will give markets the opportunity to focus on what really matters, which is the economic outlook," said Roberto Perli, a former Fed economist who is now head of monetary policy research at Cornerstone Macro.
The stock market has enjoyed a spectacular 2013, fueled in part by the Fed's low-rate policies. Those rates have led many investors to shift money out of low-yielding bonds and into stocks, thereby driving up stock prices. Still, the gains have been unevenly distributed: About 80 percent of stock market wealth is held by the richest 10 percent of Americans.
Critics have argued that by keeping rates so low for so long, the Fed has heightened the risk of inflating bubbles in assets such as stocks or real estate that could burst with devastating effect. Bernanke has said the Fed remains watchful of such risks.
But he has argued that still-high unemployment and ultra-low inflation justify continued stimulus.
Bernanke will step down from the Fed on Jan. 31 and be succeeded by vice chairwoman Janet Yellen, whose nomination the Senate is expected to confirm as soon as this week. Asked at his news conference about Yellen's role in the decision the Fed announced, Bernanke said: "I have always consulted closely with Janet, even well before she was named by the president. And I consulted closely with her on these decisions, as well, and she fully supports what we did today."