Financial markets have stabilized since an August bout of volatility and concerns about an economic slowdown in China threw the U.S. central bank off course from what seemed to be an inexorable move toward a rate hike this week.
But for a Fed that likes to wear a "data-dependent" mantle, recent U.S. economic numbers have provided little comfort in embarking on the final turn away from the policies it embraced in the wake of the 2007-2009 financial crisis.
The unemployment rate plunged to 5.1 percent in August, a figure arguably at or near the Fed's goal of full employment, and historically out of line with a federal funds rate at near zero. Consumer spending continues to hold up and Fed officials expect the economy to continue to grow at a steady pace.
But a key measure of inflation fell last month, leaving the Fed far from its other policy goal—a 2 percent inflation target—and bolstering the case that there should be no rush to raise rates until prices and wages begin to increase.
Central bank policymakers for nearly a year now have said the impact of a stronger U.S. dollar, falling global oil prices, and weak world demand would fade, allowing inflation to rise towards their target.
They must now decide whether they have enough confidence in the economy's underlying health, the state of financial markets and the likely fallout from a rate hike to move forward. Either way, they could trigger dissents from a group of policymakers adamant about hiking rates now and another group equally keen to wait.