Fed will finally wind down historic rescue program

Janet Yellen, seen here, was nominated by President Barack Obama to be the Federal Reserve chair on Wednesday, October 9, 2013.

(CNN Money) — The Federal Reserve is leaving interest rates alone to give the economy room to keep growing.

But the central bank did take historic action on Wednesday: It will begin undoing the extraordinary steps it took to prop up the economy for almost a decade after the financial crisis. The Fed said it would begin shedding $4.5 trillion in investments next month.

The announcement marks a milestone in the long recovery from 2008.

Starting in October, the Fed will begin unloading $10 billion of debt from its so-called balance sheet, including $6 billion in Treasury securities and $4 billion in agency debt. Chair Janet Yellen said the Fed would shed up to $10 billion of debt per month through December.

For years, the central bank piled up purchases of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities, a strategy intended to stimulate the economy by reducing borrowing costs for everyone.

The Fed also reduced its benchmark interest rate to zero, and only began raising it in December 2015, seven years after the crisis.

On Wednesday, the Fed left its benchmark interest rate unchanged, hovering between 1% and 1.25%. It has raised that rate three times since December as the economy has gradually improved. Raising rates too quickly could risk hobbling the recovery.

In a statement following the Federal Open Market Committee’s two-day meeting, central bankers pointed to signs of strength in the U.S. economy, including a pickup in household spending and growth in business investments.

“Job gains have remained solid in recent months, and the unemployment rate has stayed low,” the Fed said in a statement.

Fed officials cautioned that the devastation of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria would hold back the U.S. economy in the “near term.” But they said the storms would not “materially alter” the country’s economy overall.

No Fed officials dissented on the decision.

The majority of Fed policymakers signaled on Wednesday that they expect to lift rates one more time this year.

Some Fed officials have warned against raising interest rates until inflation — which reflects the prices of everything from meat and cheese to houses and cars — meets the goal of 2% that they consider healthy for the economy.

But inflation is still running below that target, even though the job market has picked up and other explanations have fallen away. In a press conference, Yellen described it as something of a mystery.

Central bankers have been in a bind over when to lift rates again. Inflation has been stubbornly low for years, suggesting the Fed should hold off. But economic growth and low unemployment suggest they should act.

Fed officials cautioned that they do expect inflation to be higher than normal — at least for a little while — following the hurricanes that have devastated Texas, Florida and now Puerto Rico.

“Higher prices for gasoline and some other items in the aftermath of the hurricanes will likely boost inflation temporarily,” the Fed warned in its statement.

The Fed said it continues to expect inflation to remain at 1.6%, below its target, and the unemployment rate to be 4.3%, based on its updated economic projections.

The central bank did, however, offer a rosier picture of the overall economy, upping its economic growth forecast to 2.4% from 2.2%.