WASHINGTON – Pause: n. a temporary stop in action. Stop. v. to bring to an end.
After a widely expected interest rate increase Wednesday, the Federal Reserve may opt to take a pause in its two-year rate-raising campaign.
But that doesn't necessarily mean the central bank is finished, says Chairman Ben Bernanke.
In other words: Pause doesn't mean stop.
The Fed chief hasn't specified when the central bank might take a break from boosting rates. But many economists predict it will be soon — at the Fed's June 28-29 meeting. Others think it will be later this summer.
"Bernanke has to walk a tightrope between raising rates too much and slowing the economy or pausing too soon and letting the inflation monster out of the bag," said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com.
What economists do agree on is that the Fed will push up its federal funds rate by one-quarter percentage point to 5 percent on Wednesday. That would mark the 16th increase of that size since the Fed began to tighten credit in June 2004.
In response, commercial banks are expected to raise their prime lending rate — for certain credit cards, home equity lines of credit and other loans — by a corresponding amount, to 8 percent.
Such moves would lift both the funds rate and the prime rate to their highest points since the spring of 2001.
Many believe Wednesday's expected increase will be the last one for the funds rate for a while. The funds rate, the interest that banks charge each other on overnight loans, affects a variety of other interest rates charged to consumers and businesses and thus is the Fed's primary tool for influencing activity.
Economists in this camp predict the Fed will pause at the June meeting because policymakers don't want to push rates too high, which could hurt the economy.
Other economists, however, insist the Fed will have to push the funds rate up to 5.25 or 5.50 percent to keep inflation under control. Then the central bank will be able to safely move to the sidelines for a while.
Both camps of economists agree it is a delicate dance that Bernanke and his colleagues face in deciding when to wind down their credit tightening campaign.
"It is an extremely difficult process to get it exactly right," said Gregory Miller, chief economist at SunTrust Banks.
Bernanke, who has been on the job since Feb. 1, is more plain spoken than his famously obscure predecessor, Alan Greenspan. But some economists said Bernanke needs to work on sharpening the signals he wants to send to Wall Street — where a single word uttered by a Fed chief can move stock and bond prices.
"He has to get a better feel for how the markets will react to the way he phrases things and the markets will have to get a better feel for how he phrases things," said economist Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors.
When Bernanke raised the possibility of the Fed pausing its credit-tightening campaign in a congressional appearance April 27, stocks rallied. When CNBC reported May 1 that Bernanke said investors had misinterpreted his congressional remarks as an indication the Fed was nearly done raising rates, stocks — which had been up for most of the day — slumped.
"I don't think Bernanke fully recognized the extent to which the markets look at only limited elements of the discussion and they pick out one word or phrase and not the nuances," Naroff said. "I think he is attempting to speak more clearly but that doesn't necessarily mean he is getting his message out clearly."
Economist Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics, thinks Bernanke so far is doing a good job of trying to be more open about the Fed's thinking on the economy and monetary policy while trying to ensure the Fed doesn't box itself in when it comes to rate actions.
"The economy is so complex and things aren't 100 percent clear, so he is trying to create wiggle room for the Fed," Mayland said.
One challenge facing the Fed is figuring out whether high energy prices will feed inflation, slow overall economic activity or perhaps lead to both scenarios. If the Fed is more worried about inflation flaring up, it would lean toward raising rates. If it is more concerned about slower economic growth, that would favor a pause.
The economy, which grew at a brisk 4.8 percent pace in the first quarter, is expected to slow to a still decent pace of about 3 percent in the second quarter.
Recent economic barometers showed that manufacturing, service sector activity and retail sales all posted healthy gains in April. Hiring, however, slowed sharply last month, with employers adding just 138,000 jobs, the fewest in six months.
On the inflation side, some measures of wages are showing big pickups, raising caution flags to some economists.