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The Fed that cried wolf: Rates forecast in doubt

Practically no one expected the Federal Reserve to do very much at this week's meeting, but it's possible the central bank actually did less.

The Fed did not raise interest rates on Wednesday and gave no indication of when the next hike might happen — virtually a prerequisite for movement on rates. As a result, 2017 is shaping up as another year in which Fed officials' time frame for rate hikes is looking too aggressive.

At least in the market's eyes, there is little chance of a hike in March, and not much likelihood that the Fed will meet the projections at the December meeting that indicated three hikes are on the way this year.

The probability for a move at the March meeting actually decreased, falling from as high as 25 percent earlier in the week to just shy of 18 percent Thursday, according to derivatives marketplace CME.

There's about a 1 in 3 chance the Federal Open Market Committee will go in May, but the next real move is projected for June, with about a 69 percent probability as interpreted through fed funds futures contracts.

Looking further ahead, traders believe there's also a 69 percent chance of another hike in December. However, the market currently assigns just a 35 percent chance that the Fed moves three times this year, which would take the funds rate to the 1.25 to 1.5 percent range from the current 0.5 to 0.75 percent level.

Of course, many variables could change the Fed's thinking. Faster-than-expected growth, particularly in market-based inflation measures, as well as stronger job reports than the middling gains expected through the year, might force the hand of policymakers.

But as things stand, the market mostly believes the Fed will be reticent to move quickly.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen

"What they didn't do and what they left out to me are more important than the tweaks they made," said Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank. "It's going to be a very tall order for the Fed to move at their next meeting. Never say never, but the probabilities of such a move are very, very low."

Even skipping the March meeting could still leave the FOMC plenty of time to get in three hikes before the end of the year. But as LaVorgna said, what the central bank officials left out of the statement appears to have spoken louder than what they actually did.

There was an acknowledgement of improved sentiment over the past several months, but little beyond that.

The stock market has rallied strongly since the November election, and Wall Street has been busy ratcheting up economic growth projections this year. However, market pros recently have grown a little skittish over the pace of economic stimulus that President Donald Trump has promised, and that concern may be weighing on Fed sentiment as well.

In the eyes of Fed officials — at least as how the statement indicated — the most notable progress regarding inflation has been that oil prices no longer are weighing. There was essentially no mention or anticipation of growth ahead that might put the Fed behind the curve and necessitate a more aggressive tightening path.

Recent data on jobs and manufacturing have been strong, with all eyes now turned to Friday's nonfarm payrolls report.

"There was very little movement in the economic outlook — moderate growth overall with a mix of solid job gains, decent household spending and soft business outlays," David Rosenberg, senior economist and strategist at Gluskin Sheff, said in his morning note Thursday.

"I think the most important comment was the more dovish tone towards inflation expectations, and the point made about inflation hitting target reflects base effects from a year ago as well as an array of transitory factors," he added.

For some, the Fed's lack of enthusiasm was a vote of economic no-confidence.

"They've not changed their official response at all since the election, acting almost like it never happened," wrote Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at The Lindsey Group. "They believe that .625 percent is the right rate for an economy that has essentially met their stated mandates, eight years into a recovery."

Boockvar and a number of his Wall Street peers continue to expect the Fed to go three times, though the Fed's dovish statement Wednesday could force some adjustments.

UBS economist Samuel Coffin said he is looking for two hikes this year, though "better capex, faster employment growth, or a stimulative enough fiscal package could shift our expectations to three."

The market turns its attention, then, back to Fed Chair Janet Yellen, who delivers her semiannual testimony to Congress on Feb. 14-15.

The central bank leader is notoriously tight-lipped when tipping her hand about the future course of policy, though the occasion will present the chance to provide some clarity.