Trying to guess the next Fed move? Good luck

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4 rate hikes not likely

Handicapping the Fed's next policy move is looking more and more like a fool's game, even for those inside the central bank.

An institution that has come to prize itself for transparency suddenly has become opaque. Market participants wait on tenterhooks to figure out when or if another interest rate increase is ahead, but find themselves facing a confusing array of signals, none of which seem consistent and all of which are adding to market volatility.

Futures traders say one thing, economists say something else, and Fed officials — well, they're trying to find a relevant message using language that no longer seems to carry much meaning while appearing at least for now to be on a more aggressive course than Wall Street believes.

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The Federal Open Market Committee, after years of hesitation and a few false alarms, finally pulled the trigger in December and raised rates a quarter point, the first such move in more than nine years. Since then, though, it's been cacophony of market volatility aggravated by a lack of clear direction from the U.S. central bank.

Minutes from the most recent FOMC meeting in January did little to assuage market concerns. Fed officials themselves didn't seem to have a great handle on where policy is headed, with some form of "uncertain" appearing 24 times, which Gluskin Sheff economist David Rosenberg termed "by the far the highest tally in recent history."

The summary in part paints a picture of Fed officials frustrated by market reactions, at one point noting that "a couple of participants questioned whether some financial market participants fully appreciated that monetary policy is data dependent."