By Jason Lange and Lindsay Dunsmuir
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve appears unlikely to raise interest rates before June amid widespread concern at the U.S. central bank over its limited ability to counter the blow of a global economic slowdown, minutes from the Fed's March 15-16 policy meeting suggest.
The minutes released on Wednesday showed policymakers debated whether they might hike rates in April but "a number" of them argued headwinds to growth would probably persist, with many arguing they should be cautious about raising rates.
"Participants generally saw global economic and financial developments as continuing to pose risks," according to the minutes.
Policymakers had signaled at the close of the March meeting that they expected to raise rates twice in 2016 but the timing of the hikes still appears up in the air.
According to the minutes, many Fed members said they were concerned that the central bank had limited firepower to respond to shocks from abroad because interest rates are already so close to zero.
"Many participants indicated that the heightened global risks and the asymmetric ability of monetary policy to respond to them warranted caution," the minutes stated.
Investors have held doubts the Fed would raise rates at all this year and the minutes did little to shift bets on the path of policy.
Prices for fed futures contracts suggested investors still saw the chance of a rate hike in December as just better than even, and they saw virtually no chance of an increase at the April 26-27 policy meeting, according to the CME group.
"Resistance to near-term action is still quite entrenched," said Ian Shepherdson, an economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.
According to the minutes, several of the central bankers said elevated risks faced by the U.S. economy meant that raising rates in April "would signal a sense of urgency they did not think appropriate."
A small minority indicated a rate hike might be warranted when the Fed meets at the end of April. After that meeting, policymakers next convene June 14-15.
Policymakers had signaled in December that four rate increases were likely in 2016, and the minutes of the March meeting highlighted the consensus within the Fed around a cautious outlook for the economy.
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Fed chief Janet Yellen said on March 29 the U.S. central bank should "proceed cautiously" in raising rates, a view Fed Governor Lael Brainard pushed late last year which has been recently embraced by policymakers including St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, who had previously warned the Fed might hike too slowly.
Bullard said on Wednesday that economic data has been mixed since the March meeting, which could make it difficult for the Fed to raise rates this month.
The Fed left its target interest rate for overnight lending between banks at between 0.25 percent and 0.5 percent in March and in January after December's hike which ended seven years of near-zero rates.
Global financial markets have been volatile since August amid concerns a slowing Chinese economy could drag heavily on global growth. Expectations the Fed would outpace other central banks in raising rates also tightened financial conditions by leading the dollar to strengthen in 2014 and 2015, though the consensus for caution has helped stabilize the U.S. currency.
At the same time, an inflation index closely followed by the Fed has begun to rebound, although policymakers were divided in March over whether the increase would prove lasting.
"Some participants saw the increase as consistent with a firming trend in inflation. Some others, however, expressed the view that the increase was unlikely to be sustained," according to the minutes.
(Reporting by Jason Lange and Lindsay Dunsmuir in Washington; Editing by Andrea Ricci)