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Fed leaves rates unchanged as all eyes turn toward December

With financial markets anticipating a rate hike before the end of the year, the Federal Reserve on Wednesday held interest rates steady again, while continuing to acknowledge that the case for a move is getting stronger.

Federal Open Market Committee officials, however, made no direct nod to a coming rate increase at the December meeting, a move that the market is strongly anticipating. In fact, the dovish FOMC majority gained a vote.

In lieu of a rate hike, the group released a statement acknowledging economic improvements that aren't yet enough to generate a policy tightening.

"The committee judges that the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has continued to strengthen but decided, for the time being, to wait for some further evidence of continued progress toward its objectives," the FOMC said in a statement released at the conclusion of its two-day meeting.

Similar language appeared in the September statement, though that statement said the case "has strengthened" rather than this month's "continued to strengthen" phrasing. The word "some" also was missing in September.

"They punted because of the growing uncertainty around the U.S. election," said Michael Arone, chief investment strategist at State Street Global Advisors. "The Fed wanted to take a bit of a backseat, and this fairly benign change in their statement reflects their conservative nature."

"During the election, the Fed, particularly through the comments from (Donald) Trump, has been made a little bit of a political chess piece," he added. "It wasn't the primary reason for their decision today, but I certainly believe that they didn't want to rock the boat."

One notable change that did happen was the committee lost one of its dissenters.

Janet Yellen
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Janet Yellen

At the previous meeting, Loretta Mester, Esther George and Eric Rosengren cast "no" votes, indicating that they would have preferred the committee to enact a quarter-point hike immediately. At this week's gathering, Rosengren joined the eight-member majority that favors holding the line.

Heading into the meeting, traders had been pricing almost no chance of a move this week, but a 73.6 percent possibility of a December hike. The Fed last hiked its rate target in December 2015, the first such move since June 2006.

The central bank took its key policy rate to near zero in late-2008 amid the darkest days of the financial crisis and left it there while expanding its balance sheet to more than $4.5 trillion during three rounds of quantitative easing.

The Fed has held off on further tightening as inflation remains below the 2 percent target, though the jobless rate is near what the central bank considers full employment.

In making its decision, officials described job gains as "solid" and saw household spending "rising moderately," the latter of which was described as "growing strongly" in September. However, they continue to be concerned about the pace of business investment, which tailed off in the third quarter, a sentiment also expressed after the last meeting.

The committee also repeated its judgment from the last meeting that risks to the Fed's economic outlook "appear roughly balanced."

Though the market anticipates a December hike, it believes the Fed will be on hold for further moves well into 2017. The CME's Fed tracker goes out to September, where it sees just a 32.5 percent possibility of another move.

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