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While you've been doing your Christmas shopping, the Federal Reserve's Open Markets Committee -- the club of officials who set short-term interest rates -- has been meeting in Washington.
With the economy finally humming along, and interest rates still close to zero, market watchers are wondering how much longer the Fed will hold out before signaling its first rate hike since before the financial crisis.
That step isn't likely to be taken Wednesday, when the two-day meeting concludes and the Fed issues an official statement. But economists do expect a significant change in the language that the Fed uses to telegraphs its policies.
In particular, the central bank has consistently stated that it will keep rates low for a "considerable time." But a recent survey conducted by Bloomberg found that four-fifths of economists believe the Fed will drop the phrase today in order to signal a more aggressive time table -- and that rates are actually likely to rise in the middle of next year.
In the meantime, here are five data points the Committee is likely discussing. The statement comes out at 2 p.m.
The economy is growing at a healthy pace. After a blip earlier this year -- widely attributed to 2013's severe winter -- the economy grew 3.9% in the third quarter. Hiking interest rates would presumably help fight off unwanted inflation. But it would also slow economic growth and could even throw the country back into a recession. That was a much bigger risk when growth was crawling along at 1% to 2% rate. With growth close to 4%, the Fed may finally be getting ready to move.
Of course, GDP growth doesn't mean much if you can't actually get a job. And the employment picture has been downright sluggish in recent years, even at times when the broader economy was showing signs of life. But that's finally started to change. The most recent jobs report, which showed the economy adding 321,000 jobs in November, was widely regarded as one of the best in years.
While GDP and jobs growth may be robust enough to justify an interest rate hike, the Fed may remain cautious for several reasons. The first one is that there is not much forcing its hand. Interest rates hikes are the central bank's main weapon for fighting inflation. But with prices rising at less than 2%, there's not much inflation to fight. That's good news, meaning the Fed has flexibility to keep rates low if it seems helpful.
Like the economy more broadly, the stock market is doing well -- up about 12% so far this year. Nonetheless the Fed will want to avoid roiling markets with unexpected news. That's what happened during 2013's "taper tantrum" when markets slumped after the Fed let slip plans to taper off its stimulative bond purchases. Since economists are widely expecting the Fed to hint at higher interest rates, that seems unlikely this time...but markets are always fickle.
While the U.S. may be looking rosier, there's still plenty to worry about in the rest of the world. One dramatic manifestation of these fears: the sudden, sharp drop in oil prices. Booming economies tend to use a lot of energy. Weakening ones less so. In many ways cheap oil helps the U.S. It's certainly been a boon to Detroit. But it can also have destabilizing effects. It's the key reason the ruble has crashed in the past few days. It's also the prime suspect in the U.S. stock market swoon in past two weeks. Shares have fallen nearly 5% since Dec. 5, including 112 points on Tuesday. Those jitters are one more reason the Fed may choose to tread carefully.