WASHINGTON -- Confidence is growing that the economic rebound will strengthen. And to make sure it does, the Federal Reserve is considered certain to hold interest rates at record lows when it meets this week.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues open a two-day meeting today at a time when the economic outlook has been brightening. Employers are creating jobs, Americans are spending more and manufacturers are boosting production.
Other signs point to a still-bumpy recovery. Unemployment remains near double digits and is expected to stay high all year. Banks aren't lending at normal levels, and demand for loans is still low.
Despite a burst in home sales last month as buyers scrambled to take advantage of a soon-to-expire home buyers tax credit, the housing market is still fragile. So is the commercial real estate industry.
For all these reasons, the Fed is all but certain to leave its key bank lending rate between zero and 0.25 percent, where it's remained since December 2008.
"The Fed is more confident in the recovery and will send a stronger message about the health of the economy," said Bill Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial Services. "But the Fed is going to be cautious, too. We aren't out of the woods yet."
Assuming the Fed leaves rates alone, commercial banks' prime lending rate, used to peg rates on certain credit cards and consumer loans, will stay about 3.25 percent. That's its lowest point in decades.
Super-low rates serve borrowers who qualify for loans and are willing to take on more debt. But they hurt savers. Low rates are especially hard on those living on fixed incomes who are earning scant returns on their savings.
Still, if rock-bottom rates spur Americans to spend more, they will help invigorate the economy. That's why the Fed also is expected to repeat its pledge -- in place for more than a year -- to keep rates at record lows for an "extended period."