Fed Puts Dec. Rate Hike Back On Table

Central bank reasserts that hike is on the table for this year.

Reviewed by: Lindsey Dunsmuir
Edited by: Lindsey Dunsmuir

The U.S. Federal Reserve kept interest rates unchanged on Wednesday, and in a direct reference to its next meeting, put a December rate hike firmly in play.

Investors had expected the Fed to remain pat on rates, but the overt reference to December came as a surprise. The Fed also downplayed recent global financial market turmoil and said the slower pace of growth in the labor market hadn't undermined its faith in the ability of the economy to create jobs.

"In determining whether it will be appropriate to raise the target range at its next meeting, the Committee will assess progress—both realized and expected—toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation," the Fed said in a statement after its two-day policy meeting.

Investor Expectations Shift

Investors quickly shifted their expectations of a December hike, with rates futures contracts upping the chance of a move this year to 47 percent from 34 percent prior to the statement.

The Fed's policy-setting committee also noted that U.S. job growth had slowed and the unemployment rate had held steady. It repeated in its statement that "underutilization of labor resources has diminished."

"The committee continues to see the risks to the outlook for economic activity and the labor market as nearly balanced," the Fed said in its statement. It added that the U.S. economy has been expanding at a moderate pace.

Most Fed policymakers have said they expect to raise rates in 2015, but two broke ranks with Fed Chair Janet Yellen this month, questioning her view that labor market tightness will fuel inflation and overheat the economy.

Some In Fed Urge Caution

Those Fed policymakers urged caution rather than a rate increase, arguing that a weakening global economy could sap U.S. economic growth and keep inflation too low.

The Fed has struggled to convince skeptical investors that a rate hike is imminent. Before Wednesday's meeting, financial markets saw virtually no chance it would raise rates this week.

A narrow majority of economists polled by Reuters predicted a rate increase in December.

The main stumbling block is that U.S. economic growth has been generally tepid and inflation low even though unemployment has fallen.

Compounding the situation, central banks from the eurozone to China are easing monetary policy, keeping upward pressure on the U.S. dollar. That hurts American exporters and acts as a brake on inflation.

Fed Still Sees Inflation Rising

In its statement, the Fed repeated it wants to be "reasonably confident" that low inflation will rise to its 2 percent target.

The Fed has two months of data to parse, including Thursday's third-quarter GDP estimate as well as employment reports for October and November, before deciding if the economy is strong enough to withstand its first rate hike since 2006.

It will also get a chance to see how monetary policy easing in Europe, Japan and China plays out in financial markets. When the European Central Bank hinted last week at more bond-buying stimulus to come, the dollar rose 3 percent.

Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker dissented on Wednesday for the second-consecutive meeting.