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By Ann Saphir

(Reuters) - The Federal Reserve should start raising U.S. interest rates in the second half of next year, and should do so only gradually, keeping borrowing costs well below normal levels even into 2017, a top U.S. central banker said on Wednesday.

"Given the economic outlook, and given also my view that we need accommodative policy relative to historical norms, we need to have relatively low levels of interest rates for quite some time," San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President John Williams told Reuters. "My own view is it makes sense to start raising rates in the second half of 2015."

But the pace of rate increases, in Williams' view, should be extremely slow, with rates ending 2016 well below the historical norm of 4 percent, "with the first digit being a '2,'" he said.

That suggests a pace of rate hikes well short of that pursued the last time the Fed raised rates, when Alan Greenspan oversaw a quarter-of-a-percentage-point rate increase at 17 consecutive policy-setting meetings, starting in June 2004.

With the U.S. economy gaining strength and the unemployment rate down sharply from its recession-era high, the Fed began earlier this year to cut its bond-buying stimulus.

But the U.S. central bank is still far from raising short-term interest rates, which have been pinned near zero since December 2008. Many Fed officials have been eager to let investors know that they feel the economy still needs plenty of help from the central bank, so that any rate hikes will be gradual.

Williams is not a voter on the Fed's policy-setting panel this year, but his views bear watching because of his close ties to Fed Chair Janet Yellen, who was his boss until 2010, when she ran the San Francisco Fed and he was her research director.

Half of Fed officials see rates ending 2016 at 2 percent or more, but below 3 percent.

(Editing by Jan Paschal)

Budget, Tax & Economyinterest ratesFederal Reserve
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