The Federal Reserve is again hinting that a December rate hike is still possible, though its rationale isn't very convincing.
The central bank wrapped up its two-day meeting on Wednesday by confirming what everyone already knew: interest rates weren't going up right now. But there was a subtle clue in its policy statement about what could happen next.
Here's what it said in the third paragraph:
"In determining whether it will be appropriate to raise the target range at its next meeting, the [Fed's Open Market] Committee will assess progress...toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2% inflation.''
This replaced more general language the committee used after last month's meeting:
"In determining how long to maintain this target range, the Committee will assess progress..."
See the difference? In the Kremlin-like world of the Fed, that's the equivalent of hitchhiking with your skirt above the knee.
If only the rationale for the Fed's newfound brashness about timing were reflected more cleanly in the data.
As the Fed noted, employment growth has slowed down in the last few jobs reports. While some commentators have emphasized that other labor-market indicators are showing improvement--especially the number of workers employed part-time because they can't find full-time work--the unemployment rate is still holding at 5.1%.
Growth slowdowns in markets from China to Canada, some of them outright national recessions, coupled with prospects for slower third-quarter growth in the U.S., don't make a convincing case that the economy is about to bust out.
Indeed, exporters like Caterpillar (CAT) - Get Report and Alcoa (AA) - Get Report are already feeling heat, and others from Dow Chemical (DOW) - Get Report to Boeing (BA) - Get Report are at risk of significant lost sales, sooner or later.
Nowhere is this more true than in the inflation data. The Fed wants to be confident that inflation is ticking up toward its 2% annual target before tightening money. But there's no sign that inflation is breaking out of the 1.3% range, excluding food and energy, it has been in all year.
Including food and energy, as consumer budgets do, inflation is even lower -- the Consumer Price Index is actually slightly lower than a year ago. Indeed, the Fed acknowledges market-based signs of inflation expectations have moved "slightly lower." Even that is a change from just "lower" in last month's statement. But nothing about the picture for inflation has really changed.
That's why this statement isn't likely to appease critics of the Fed's recently incoherent communication, which has confused markets around the world. Investors know that nothing in the statement contradicts the theories of international experts or even members of the Fed itself who want to wait longer than December, and that there's no change in the data that points to an acceleration in the economy that warrants a rate hike.
Statement or no, the Fed is going to have the same argument in a little less than two months. Unless intervening jobs reports and other data show a pickup, expectations will remain that there won't be a rate hike until next year.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.