Fed expected to hold rates steady

Straddling risky economic crosscurrents, the Federal Reserve is expected to stand still this week on interest rates.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues, who open a two-day meeting today, are in a tricky spot: They are faced with stuck-in-a-rut economic growth along with inflation threats from rising prices for energy, food and other commodities.

Fed officials have made clear that, because of concern about inflation, they're not inclined to cut rates further. At the same time, they have recognized that pushing rates up too soon could undermine an economy buffeted by housing, credit and financial woes.

Against that backdrop, the Fed is almost certain to hold its key interest rate steady at 2 percent when it wraps up its session on Wednesday.

If that's the case, the prime lending rate for millions of consumers and businesses would stay at 5 percent. The prime rate applies to certain credit cards, home equity lines of credit and other loans.

Wall Street investors and a few economists believe inflation problems might force the Fed to start boosting rates in August or later this year. However, many others think that's a situation the Fed would like to avoid – especially given that the housing market is still flailing and foreclosures are at record highs.

“It's an extremely hard place for the Fed,” said Susan Wachter, a professor of real estate and finance at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

Over the past few weeks, Bernanke and his colleagues have ramped up their tough anti-inflation talk to rein in inflation expectations of consumers, investors and businesses. If those groups think prices will keep on rising, they'll act in ways that can worsen inflation.

Consumer prices in the first five months of this year have risen at an annual rate of 4 percent. That's down from a 4.1 percent increase last year – the biggest jump in 17 years – but is still too high for the Fed's liking.

Gasoline prices and oil prices have set a string of record highs. Gas has topped $4 a gallon while oil prices are hovering around $134 a barrel.

Economists predict the Fed's policy statement, released Wednesday, probably will go further in highlighting inflation risks but won't signal a rate increase at the Fed's next meeting on Aug. 5.