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Fed Minutes: Fed Sought to Signal Rate-Hike Cycle Near End

Federal Reserve policy-makers were divided on how much higher interest rates would need to rise to contain inflation, but most believed the end of the nearly two-year rate-hike campaign was near, minutes of the Dec. 13 meeting show.

The Federal Open Market Committee raised the benchmark federal funds overnight lending rate by a quarter-percentage point to 4.25 percent at its Dec. 13 meeting, the 13th straight gathering at which it nudged credit costs higher.

In a post-meeting statement that day, Fed officials said "some further measured policy firming" was likely.

The minutes of the meeting showed officials believed that language would suggest to financial markets that only a few more rates hikes would likely follow.

"Although future action would depend on the incoming data, this characterization of the outlook for policy was seen by most members as indicating that, given the information now in hand, the number of additional firming steps required probably would not be large," the minutes said.

The minutes said officials' views varied as to how much further rates, which stood at an ultra low 1 percent when the tightening cycle began in June 2004, might need to rise.

"Members thought that the policy outlook was becoming considerably less certain and that policy decisions going forward would depend to an increased extent on the implications of incoming economic data for future growth and inflation," they said.

The minutes said Fed officials would need to be mindful that rate increases impacted the economy with a lag. But they also needed to keep in mind the potential impact the recent prolonged stretch of favorable financial conditions would have on asset prices and consumer and business demand.

Some FOMC members felt the cycle of rate rises had brought borrowing costs into a range consistent with keeping the economy operating near its noninflationary potential.

To reflect that view, the Fed's post-meeting statement dropped its long-standing characterization of rates as being accommodative, or economically stimulative.

The rate-setting committee, however, decided to retain the use of the word "measured" in describing the likely future path of policy, even though some officials thought it was no longer needed.

"Its retention for this meeting was seen as potentially useful to preclude a possible misinterpretation that the committee now saw a significant possibility of adjusting policy in larger increments in the near future," the minutes said.

Financial markets look for another quarter-point rate hike at the FOMC's next meeting on January 31, which will be Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan's final day at the U.S. central bank.

But, after the minutes were released, futures markets trimmed bets that another small increase would follow at the Fed's subsequent meeting in late March.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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