For the first time in nearly a decade, the Federal Reserve is thinking about raising its base interest rate. The Washington Post's Ylan Mui explains what it could mean for everything from the stock market to home mortgages. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

The Federal Reserve on Thursday voted to maintain its unprecedented support for the U.S. recovery, leaving a key interest rate unchanged amid gathering clouds over the global economy.

In an official statement, the nation’s central bank said the job market is recovering and hiring is “solid.” But it expressed concern that inflation remains too low and exports have weakened. Meanwhile, the risk is building that turmoil overseas will drag down growth in America.

"Recent global economic and financial developments may restrain economic activity somewhat and are likely to put further downward pressure on inflation in the near term," the central bank's official statement read.

The decision to keep the Fed’s benchmark interest rate at zero amounts to a recognition that the robust recovery central bank officials had hoped for when they launched into an uncharted era of easy money during the throes of the 2008 financial crisis has yet to materialize. The Fed has repeatedly pushed back the goal line as the economy failed to deliver. Seven years after the central bank cut its target rate to zero, Fed officials believe the recovery is not yet ready to stand on its own.

At the press conference that followed the rate announcement Thursday afternoon, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said that a rate hike was still likely by the end of the year. But she reiterated that though “domestic developments have been strong, we want to see continued improvement in the labor market," and the central bank would like "to bolster our confidence that inflation will move toward" the Fed’s 2 percent target before a rate hike.

“We have very large drags from energy prices and import prices," Yellen said, adding that the central bank views those as transitory. As the labor market heals, "we will see further upward pressure on inflation," she said. “We expect to achieve our 2 percent goal over the medium term.”

Markets grew volatile immediately after news of the rate hold, going flat by the end of Yellen's press conference. The Dow Jones Industrial average closed down 0.4 percent and the Standard & Poor’s index closed down about 0.3 percent on Thursday.

Documents released by the Fed show most of the Fed's top brass now anticipate increasing rates only once this year, instead of twice. A growing minority think the central bank should not raise its benchmark rate this year at all, and one suggested it should stimulate the economy even more by taking the rate negative.

Three officials are advocating a 2016 liftoff, while one person pinned 2017 as the date -- longer than anyone has suggested so far.

“Even though the summer stresses in financial markets have abated, the impact of the intense market volatility on domestic economic activity is yet to fully play out,” Millan Mulraine, deputy chief U.S. macro strategist at TD Securities, wrote in a research note.

The Fed lowers its target rate when it wants to stimulate the economy by encouraging businesses and consumers to spend. It hikes when the economy begins to grow too quickly and inflation picks up, making saving money more attractive.

Timing, however, is crucial. If the Fed moves too soon, it risks undercutting the recovery’s momentum. Waiting too long could stock dangerous financial bubbles.

Yellen made reference to that risk at the press conference Thursday when asked whether the Fed should be moving sooner rather than later to raise the rates. "I don't think it's good policy to then have to slam on the brakes," she said.

The Fed modestly upgraded Thursday its expectation for economic growth this year from 1.9 percent to 2.1 percent, but the forecast is still lower than the robust expansion enjoyed a decade ago. The jobless rate has already fallen below the central bank's June estimate of 5.3 percent. The Fed adjusted its forecast to 5 percent. It also nudged up its estimate of core inflation from 1.3 percent to 1.4 percent.

In May, Yellen said speech that she expected the economy would be strong enough to raise the target rate by the end of the year. Other top Fed officials had signaled the long-awaited move could come during its meeting this month.

But that was before the jaw-dropping swings in financial markets over the past few weeks, including a 1,000-point plunge in the Dow Jones industrial average. Evidence is mounting that China’s breakneck economic growth is fizzling out faster than previously thought.

In the meantime, the strong U.S. dollar and low oil prices are weighing on inflation, which has run below the Fed’s target of 2 percent for years. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, Nobel-laureate Joseph Stiglitz and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers have all called on the central bank to hold off on a rate hike, at least for now.

“Now is the time for the Fed to do what is often hardest for policymakers,” Summers wrote in The Washington Post recently. “Stand still.”

The calls for delay are also coming from a populist campaign known as Fed Up, which protested outside of the central bank’s buildings Thursday. Several lawmakers joined the demonstration, including Michigan Rep. John Conyers, who is sponsoring a bill that would require the Fed to target a 4 percent unemployment rate.

Not everyone agrees the Fed should wait, however. Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker dissented from the central bank’s vote on Thursday. In a speech earlier this month, he pointed to strong consumer spending, the sharp decline in unemployment and a pickup in inflation measured since the beginning of the year as reasons a rate hike is warranted.

“I am not arguing that the economy is perfect, but nor is it on the ropes, requiring zero interest rates to get it back into the ring,” he said. “It’s time to align our monetary policy with the significant progress we have made.”

In its official statement, the Fed attempted to assure investors and the public that after the first rate hike, it expects to make subsequent hikes only gradually. Though most officials predicted the Fed would raise its target rate several times next year, they also forecast it would remain below its historic norm of about 4 percent for several years. Fed documents released Thursday show the long-run median estimate at  just 3.5 percent.

Each hike will also likely be small, analysts expect just one quarter of one percent. That would allow the central bank to assess how an economy grown accustomed to easy money operates under a new regime.

“One should never discount the importance of an interest rate change by a central bank merely because it looks small,” said Scott Sumner, an economist at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “Some pretty big avalanches have started from a small pebble being dislodged.”