Fed keeps rates steady, signals one hike by end of year

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WASHINGTON, Sept 21 (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Reserve left interest rates unchanged on Wednesday but strongly signaled it could still tighten monetary policy by the end of this year as the labor market improved further.

The Fed said U.S. economic activity had picked up and job gains were "solid" in recent months.

"The case for an increase in the federal funds rate has strengthened," the U.S. central bank said in a statement following a two-day policy meeting.

It added that its rate-setting committee had decided against raising rates "for the time being," until there was more evidence of progress towards its employment and inflation objectives.

The Fed has held its target rate for overnight lending between banks in a range of 0.25 percent to 0.50 percent since December, when it raised borrowing costs for the first time in nearly a decade.

Photos of Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen:

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Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
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Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen coughs and takes a long pause during a speech at the University of Massachusetts, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in Amherst, Mass. The Federal Reserve says Yellen felt dehydrated at the end of the speech and was seen by medical personnel as a precaution. Yellen was delivering a 23-page speech on inflation when toward the end of the speech, she paused for a period of time, giving the appearance of losing her place in the text. She then resumed speaking, saying she wanted to wrap up. She was helped from the stage. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Janet Yellen, chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, pauses while speaking during the annual Philip Gamble Memorial Lecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Amherst, Massachusetts, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Yellen said the U.S. central bank is on track to raise interest rates this year, even as she acknowledged that economic 'surprises' could lead them to change that plan. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Janet Yellen, chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, speaks during the annual Philip Gamble Memorial Lecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Amherst, Massachusetts, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Yellen said the U.S. central bank is on track to raise interest rates this year, even as she acknowledged that economic 'surprises' could lead them to change that plan. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen speaks on inflation dynamics and monetary policy at the University of Massachusetts, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in Amherst, Mass. The talk comes one week after the central bank decided to keep interest rates at record low, in part because of persistently low inflation. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Attendees applaud as Janet Yellen, chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, not pictured, concludes her speech during the annual Philip Gamble Memorial Lecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Amherst, Massachusetts, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Yellen said the U.S. central bank is on track to raise interest rates this year, even as she acknowledged that economic 'surprises' could lead them to change that plan. Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is assisted down from the podium by University of Massachusetts economics professor Michael Ash after a speech at the University of Massachusetts, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in Amherst, Mass. The Federal Reserve says Yellen felt dehydrated at the end of the speech and was seen by medical personnel as a precaution. Yellen was delivering a 23-page speech on inflation when toward the end of the speech, she paused for a period of time, giving the appearance of losing her place in the text. She then resumed speaking, saying she wanted to wrap up. She was helped from the stage. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, left, pauses as University of Massachusetts economics professor Michael Ash, right, watches after her speech, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in Amherst, Mass. The Federal Reserve says Yellen felt dehydrated at the end of the speech and was seen by medical personnel as a precaution. Yellen was delivering a 23-page speech on inflation when toward the end of the speech, she paused for a period of time, giving the appearance of losing her place in the text. She then resumed speaking, saying she wanted to wrap up. She was helped from the stage. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen speaks on inflation dynamics and monetary policy at the University of Massachusetts, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in Amherst, Mass. The talk comes one week after the central bank decided to keep interest rates at record low, in part because of persistently low inflation. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen speaks on inflation dynamics and monetary policy at the University of Massachusetts, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in Amherst, Mass. The talk comes one week after the central bank decided to keep interest rates at record low, in part because of persistently low inflation. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
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The central bank has appeared increasingly divided over the urgency of raising rates. On Wednesday, Kansas City Fed President Esther George, Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester and Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren dissented on the policy statement, saying they favored raising rates this week.

At the same time, policymakers cut the number of rate increases they expect this year to one from two previously, according to the median projection of forecasts released with the statement. Three of the 17 policymakers said rates should remain steady for the rest of the year.

The Fed also projected a less aggressive rise in interest rates next year and in 2018, and cut its longer-run interest rate forecast to 2.9 percent from 3.0 percent.

But in a sign of growing confidence, the Fed said the near-term risks for the economic outlook "appear roughly balanced." That means policymakers think the economy is about as likely to outperform forecasts as to underperform them.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen was due to hold a press conference at 2:30 p.m. EDT (1830 GMT).

The Fed in December signaled that four rate increases were likely this year, but that was scaled back in March due to a global growth slowdown, financial market volatility and concerns about tepid U.S. inflation.

The economy expanded sluggishly in the second quarter and added fewer jobs than expected in August. Inflation also showed signs of stirring last month.

The Fed's decision, which came the same day that Japan's central bank added a long-term interest rate target to its massive asset-buying program in an overhaul of its policy framework, was widely anticipated by economists.

A Reuters poll showed the median probability of a September rate rise was about 25 percent. Only 6 percent of those surveyed expected the Fed to raise rates, with the majority believing it would wait until December.

The Fed has policy meetings scheduled in early November and mid-December. Economists believe policymakers would avoid a rate hike in November in part because the meeting falls just days before the U.S. presidential election. (Reporting by Jason Lange, Lindsay Dunsmuir and Howard Schneider; Editing by Paul Simao)

Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington, D.C.:

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Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington
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Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington
FILE - This March 14, 2014 file photo shows the Federal Reserve headquarters building in Washington. In the minutes of the Federal Reserve's June 17-18 meeting issued Wednesday, July 9, 2014, Fed officials had differing views on the best way to signal to financial markets when they might raise a key short-term interest rate. They were in broad agreement, however, that their monthly bond buying program will end in October. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)
The headquarters of the Federal Reserve Bank is seen at sunrise in Washington Saturday, May 24, 2008. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)
The Federal Reserve headquarters stands in Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. During its policy meeting on Wednesday, the Federal Reserve is expected to take its first step toward slowing the economic stimulus it's supplied since the financial crisis and the Great Recession five years ago. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)
The Federal Reserve Building on Constitution Avenue in Washington is seen Friday evening, March 27, 2009, in Washington. The headquarters of the Federal Reserve System was constructed in 1936 in the wake of the Great Depression. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
FILE - This Sept. 18, 2013 file photo shows the Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington. Minutes of the Fed's discussion at its July 29-30, 2014 meeting show that some officials thought the economy was improving enough that the Fed would need "to call for a relatively prompt move" toward reducing the support it has been providing. Otherwise, they felt the Fed risked overshooting its targets for unemployment and inflation. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)
The Federal Reserve Building on Constitution Avenue in Washington is seen Friday evening, March 27, 2009, in Washington. The headquarters of the Federal Reserve System was constructed in 1936 in the wake of the Great Depression. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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