WASHINGTON – The Federal Reserve may finally be ready to halt its two-year campaign to raise interest rates, but with soaring energy prices threatening to make inflation worse any pause may be temporary.
The central bank has not missed a chance to boost interest rates since it started the current credit tightening campaign in June 2004, the longest stretch of Fed rate hikes in recent history.
It has nudged the federal funds rate up by a quarter-point at each of 17 consecutive meetings, going from a 46-year low of 1 percent to the current level of 5.25 percent.
That trend could change Tuesday.
Many analysts believe Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues will decide they don't need to raise rates further, at least for now, because of growing signs that the economy is slowing.
Last week, the government reported a fourth straight month of weak job growth, with the unemployment rate rising from 4.6 percent to 4.8 percent in July. Another report showed the overall economy, after racing ahead at an annual rate of 5.6 percent in the first three months of the year, slowed to less than half that pace -- 2.5 percent -- in the spring.
"I think the weakening economy will trump the fear of accelerating inflation and they will pause," predicted Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.
Bernanke raised expectations of a pause when he delivered the Fed's latest economic forecast to Congress last month, saying the central bank believed that a slowing economy would lower inflation pressures over the next two years.
Before those comments, financial markets were putting odds of an 18th rate hike as high as 90 percent. By Monday, that expectation had fallen to 20 percent, as judged by a federal funds futures contract traded on the Chicago Board of Trade.
But there is still some uncertainty over the Fed's next move because while the economy has been slowing, inflation pressures have been rising.
The 5.25 percent federal funds rate, the overnight rate banks charge each other, stands at the highest point in more than five years. The funds rate influences other interest rates -- including mortgage rates, indirectly -- and is the Fed's main tool for influencing economic activity.
Commercial banks' prime lending rate -- for certain credit cards, home equity lines of credit and other loans -- has moved up step-by-step with the funds rate and is currently 8.25 percent.
The Fed's favorite inflation gauge, which is tied to consumer spending, showed core inflation -- excluding energy and food -- rose by 2.4 percent in the 12 months ending in June, the fastest clip in 11 years, and above the Fed's comfort zone of 1 percent to 2 percent.
There was more bad news on the inflation front this week when an oil pipeline shutdown in Alaska sent crude oil prices soaring by more than $2 per barrel to close at $76.98 in New York trading, near the record of $77.03 set July 14.
Many economists believe the rising inflation pressures will mean the statement issued at the end of Tuesday's meeting will spell out that the central bank stands ready to push rates higher if inflation threatens to get worse.
Some analysts are forecasting that the Fed could raise rates one or two more times this fall.
"It is our view that they are going to have to hike again because there are going to be some pretty unpleasant surprises in the inflation numbers," said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at Global Insight, an economic forecasting firm. "Inflation is likely to get worse in the next few months and the Fed can't sit on its hands."
David Jones, chief economist at Denver-based DMJ Advisors, said if higher oil prices prompt the Fed to raise the funds rate three more times to 6 percent, that would greatly increase the chances that the economy could tumble into an outright recession next year.
"What will be crucial will be the negative impact on the economy of the tightening moves that have already occurred," Jones said.
David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York, said he believed the Fed has not overdone the tightening moves and that a slowing economy will bring inflation back to a more moderate level in the coming year.
Wyss predicted that the Fed's next move will be a rate cut, probably sometime next summer, as it responds to the moderating inflation and a slowing economy that he expects will occur over the next year.