WASHINGTON – Again and again in recent months, the Federal Reserve has signaled that it's edging closer to resuming the interest-rate hikes it began in December.
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It just doesn't seem to be there quite yet.
When the Fed ends its latest policy meeting Wednesday, it's expected to leave the short-term rate it controls at the low level where it's been for 10 months. In the view of most economists, the Fed wants more time to assess the health of the U.S. economy, the risks from overseas and the prospect that low inflation will soon reach the central bank's 2 percent target rate.
Many think the next rate increase will come in December.
Until recently, many Fed watchers had thought a rate hike was likely this week. They believed that the Fed, starting with a late-August speech by Chair Janet Yellen in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, was preparing investors for an imminent rate increase. In that speech, Yellen suggested that given the job market's solid gains and the Fed's outlook for the economy and inflation, "the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has strengthened in recent months."
Other Fed officials, including Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer, made similar observations, seemingly part of a collective signal that a September rate hike was probable if not definite.
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Accordingly, Eric Rosengren, president of the Fed's Boston regional bank, suggested early this month that "a reasonable case can be made" for further gradual increases in rates. That comment, from someone who has generally taken a cautious stance toward rate increases, alarmed investors that higher borrowing rates were about to hit the economy. It sent the Dow Jones industrial average tumbling nearly 400 points that day.
Sentiment shifted, though, after Lael Brainard, a Fed board member and Yellen ally, a few days later laid out the case for delaying a resumption of rate increases for now. Brainard's comments, coupled with a string of weaker-than-expected economic data in recent days, have led watchers to conclude that there will likely be no rate increase this week.
Still, many analysts say they think the statement the Fed will release Wednesday could send a clear signal that modestly higher lending costs are indeed coming soon — in part to satisfy the growing number of Fed officials who are pushing for a resumption of rate increases.
"I think the Fed will give us a statement that opens the door wide for a December rate increase," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at DS Economics. "They will want to prepare markets so that when do they move, it will be an almost non-event."
Swonk and other economists point to the minutes of the Fed's July meeting and comments from officials since then to suggest that the central bank's "hawks" — those who think it should be acting faster to raise rates — are gathering adherents from the dove camp. Doves tend to be wary of raising rates quickly for fear for undermining economic growth.
"I sense that the hawks are becoming more influential and even bringing along some doves," said David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors, pointing to Esther George, a leading Fed hawk who has dissented three times this year in favor of rate hikes. "George is winning her argument that rates are simply too low for current economic conditions including unemployment at 4.9 percent."
But other economists say that members of the dove camp, who include Yellen, aren't yet convinced, especially after the recent string of tepid readings on the economy.
Job growth slowed in August. A manufacturing gauge slid back into recession territory. An index that tracks the services economy, where most Americans work, fell to its lowest level since 2010. U.S. shoppers retreated in August to depress retail sales after four straight monthly gains.
These were signs that the economy might be struggling to accelerate after three straight quarters of anemic growth.
And perhaps most critical for some Fed officials, inflation has yet to make significant progress in rising toward the central bank's 2 percent target range
"They need to see more evidence of progress, especially on inflation," said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University, Channel Islands, who said he thinks the Fed may not raise rates at all this year.
Traders in futures markets have put the probability of a September rate hike at just 15 percent, according to data tracked by the CME Group. The likelihood of a rate hike by the mid-December meeting is put at 60 percent.
In the meantime, the Fed's efforts to keep itself from becoming embroiled in the presidential race have had limited success. Donald Trump declared last week that Yellen "should be ashamed of herself" for keeping rates so low for so long, saying "she's obviously political and doing what Obama wants her to do."
Hillary Clinton countered that the Republican presidential nominee should not add "the Fed onto his long list of institutions and individuals that he is maligning."
When the Fed ends its meeting Wednesday afternoon, it will issue a policy statement, and then Yellen will hold a news conference. Don't expect her to address Trump's comments. In the past, the Fed chair has deflected questions about the Republican nominee's remarks.