By Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir
WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Federal Reserve should hold off on any interest rate hike until it is clear that a global slowdown, trouble in China and other international risks will not push the U.S. recovery off course, Fed Governor Lael Brainard said on Monday in one of the strongest defenses yet of a go-slow approach to rate policy.
"I view the risks to the economic outlook as tilted to the downside. The downside risks make a strong case for continuing to carefully nurture the U.S. recovery - and argue against prematurely taking away the support that has been so critical to its vitality," Brainard said. It was, Brainard said, time only for "watching and waiting" - not hiking rates.
Her comments and those of other policymakers point to a vigorous debate underway ahead of the Fed's October and December meetings, as U.S. central bankers mull whether to proceed with an interest rate hike or delay in the face of what Brainard called "deflationary" trends around the world.
In contrast to Brainard's remarks, two policymakers whose views are often at odds both suggested on Monday they could well support a rate increase in December, as long as the economic data does not disappoint and that rate hikes once begun are gradual. Fed Vice Chair Stanley Fischer on Sunday said he too expects a 2015 hike.
Traders see about a 40 percent chance the Fed will raise rates in December, and give about even odds for the January meeting. For October they see a less than one in 10 chance, though both Dennis Lockhart, the centrist chief of the Atlanta Fed, and Chicago Fed president Charles Evans, whose views are more dovish, sought to keep even October in the market's sights.
"I think October is a live meeting, clearly there is the potential that the data coming in, in advance of the October meeting, will be sufficient," Lockhart said in Orlando, Florida.
Speaking separately in Chicago, Evans said that while for him waiting until mid-2016 would be the "best choice," doing so earlier would not necessarily hurt his forecast for the economy.
"There is wiggle room" on the timing of the rate hike, he told reporters after a speech, and the economy could probably even withstand a slightly steeper set of rate increases than he, personally, would view as optimal.
The Fed next meets Oct. 27-28.
(With reporting by Nick Carey in Chicago, Lindsay Dunsmuir in Orlando, and Jason Lange in Washington; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Christian Plumb)