Janet Yellen tried Wednesday, at her first news conference as Federal Reserve chair, to clarify a question that's consumed investors and savers: When will the Fed start raising short-term interest rates from record lows?
Yellen stressed that with the job market still weak, the Fed intends to keep short-term rates near zero for a "considerable" time and would raise them only gradually.
And she said the Fed wouldn't be dictated solely by the unemployment rate, which she feels no longer fully captures the job market's health.
Those two points reinforced a message the Fed delivered in a policy statement after ending a two-day meeting Wednesday. The statement also said the Fed will cut its monthly long-term bond purchases by $10 billion to $55 billion because it thinks the economy is steadily healing.
But Yellen might have confused investors when she tried to clarify the Fed's timetable for raising short-term rates. She suggested that the Fed could start six months after it halts its monthly bond purchases, which most economists expect by year's end. That would mean short-term rates could rise by mid-2015.
A short-term rate increase would elevate borrowing costs and could hurt stock prices. Stocks fell after Yellen's mention of six months.
The Fed's latest statement said its benchmark short-term rate could stay at a record low "for a considerable time" after its monthly bond purchases end. The Fed has been gradually paring its bond purchases, which have been intended to keep long-term loan rates low.
"This is the kind of term it's hard to define," Yellen said of "considerable time." "Probably means something on the order of six months, or that type of thing."
Though stocks sold off after that remark, the Fed's statement and Yellen's comments made clear that borrowing rates for consumers and businesses could remain low for many more months. Yellen also stressed that rate increases, once they occur, would be only incremental.
Yellen devoted much of her news conference to explaining why the economy still needed a boost from the Fed. She stressed that low inflation and meager pay raises for many workers reflected a weaker recovery than the decline in the unemployment rate might indicate.
The Fed's benchmark short-term rate has been at a record low near zero since 2008.