Fed puts December rate hike firmly on the agenda

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Federal Reserve Leaves Rates Unchanged, Paves Way for December Hike


The U.S. Federal Reserve kept interest rates unchanged on Wednesday and in a direct reference to its next policy 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 central bank also downplayed recent global financial market turmoil and said the U.S. labor market was still healing despite a slower pace of job growth.

"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 latest two-day policy meeting.

Investors quickly placed bets reflecting a higher chance the U.S. central bank will raise rates in December, with futures contracts implying a 43 percent possibility compared to 34 percent prior to the statement.

Going into the Fed meeting this week, the market had viewed March as the most likely time for the central bank to begin its rates "liftoff," but it now sees a greater chance of that happening in late January.

The U.S. dollar rose sharply and yields for U.S. government debt soared in anticipation of higher rates. U.S. stock prices initially fell but regained momentum and closed sharply higher.

Michael Feroli, a former Fed economist now at JPMorgan, said the Fed statement was the first since 1999 in which policymakers pointed to a possible rate increase at the next meeting.

"By specifically referring to that meeting they are basically testing the waters a bit," said Aneta Markowska, an economist at Societe Generale in New York. She described it as a "subtle attempt" to gently nudge the market in that direction.

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Fed puts December rate hike firmly on the agenda
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28: Traders in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index options pit at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) fill orders shortly before the close of trading on October 28, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. At the conclusion of its two-day policy meeting today the Federal Reserve said that it was keeping short-term interest rates near zero but, said it was open to raising rates at the next meeting in December. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28: Traders in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index options pit at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) fill orders shortly before the close of trading on October 28, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. At the conclusion of its two-day policy meeting today the Federal Reserve said that it was keeping short-term interest rates near zero but, said it was open to raising rates at the next meeting in December. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28: Traders in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index options pit at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) fill orders shortly before the close of trading on October 28, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. At the conclusion of its two-day policy meeting today the Federal Reserve said that it was keeping short-term interest rates near zero but, said it was open to raising rates at the next meeting in December. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28: Traders in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index options pit at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) fill orders shortly before the close of trading on October 28, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. At the conclusion of its two-day policy meeting today the Federal Reserve said that it was keeping short-term interest rates near zero but, said it was open to raising rates at the next meeting in December. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28: Traders in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index options pit at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) fill orders shortly before the close of trading on October 28, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. At the conclusion of its two-day policy meeting today the Federal Reserve said that it was keeping short-term interest rates near zero but, said it was open to raising rates at the next meeting in December. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28: Traders in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index options pit at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) fill orders shortly before the close of trading on October 28, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. At the conclusion of its two-day policy meeting today the Federal Reserve said that it was keeping short-term interest rates near zero but, said it was open to raising rates at the next meeting in December. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28: Traders in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index options pit at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) fill orders shortly before the close of trading on October 28, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. At the conclusion of its two-day policy meeting today the Federal Reserve said that it was keeping short-term interest rates near zero but, said it was open to raising rates at the next meeting in December. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28: Traders in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index options pit at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) fill orders shortly before the close of trading on October 28, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. At the conclusion of its two-day policy meeting today the Federal Reserve said that it was keeping short-term interest rates near zero but, said it was open to raising rates at the next meeting in December. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28: Traders in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index options pit at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) fill orders shortly before the close of trading on October 28, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. At the conclusion of its two-day policy meeting today the Federal Reserve said that it was keeping short-term interest rates near zero but, said it was open to raising rates at the next meeting in December. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28: Traders in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index options pit at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) fill orders shortly before the close of trading on October 28, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. At the conclusion of its two-day policy meeting today the Federal Reserve said that it was keeping short-term interest rates near zero but, said it was open to raising rates at the next meeting in December. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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LEAVING DOOR OPEN

The Fed has been struggling to convince investors a rate hike was imminent in the wake of data this month that showed U.S. employers slammed the brakes on hiring in August and September.

But it countered the skepticism on Wednesday by saying even slower hiring was still enough to get it closer to its goal of maximum employment.

Central bank policymakers also pointed to "solid rates" of growth in consumer spending and business investment, while eliminating a reference from their previous statement warning a global economic slowdown could sap U.S. economic strength.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen has been saying for much of this year that a rate hike would likely be needed in 2015 to keep the economy from eventually overheating.

More recently two Fed governors urged caution over rate hikes while questioning Yellen's views on inflation, though such doubts appeared muted in Wednesday's statement.

The Fed now has several important economic readings to parse, including two monthly employment reports, before it makes up its mind on whether to tighten policy at its Dec. 15-16 meeting.

It will also get a chance to see how monetary policy easing in Europe, Japan and China plays out in financial markets. Easy money policies abroad push the dollar higher, hurting U.S. exporters and making it harder for the Fed to get inflation back up to its 2 percent target. That may explain why the Fed sought to leave the door open for a rate hike rather than paint the economy as fully ready for a monetary policy tightening.

"The Fed has dialed down its anxiety over international developments, but it's best to play it safe," said Brian Jacobsen, a portfolio strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

RELATED: See photos of the Federal Reserve headquarters

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Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington
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Fed puts December rate hike firmly on the agenda
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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