Federal Reserve monetary policy officials aren't due to meet again for five weeks, but investors have already resumed worrying about higher interest rates.

When the Fed's Open Market Committee left rates unchanged last week, many market participants said it deferred action solely because of Asia's painful financial crisis.

Their hunches were largely confirmed several days later when minutes of the committee's March 31 meeting revealed growing concern about inflation and a previously unknown dissenter.

At that session, Cleveland Fed President Jerry Jordan "indicated a strong preference for an immediate policy tightening move," according to the Fed's minutes of the meeting.

Mr. Jordan is a longtime inflation hawk, and his dissent was not surprising. In general, however, the minutes hinted at considerable differences of opinion on the committee.

"We tend to think of the FOMC as being 'the Fed,'" said economist Scott J. Brown of Raymond James & Associates, St. Petersburg, Fla. "However, policymakers are distinct individuals, each with his or her own set of opinions, beliefs, and expectations."

Fed policy-meeting minutes are typically not released until after the subsequent meeting has taken place. Nevertheless, they are carefully combed for clues by economists and money managers.

In the style associated with Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, the March meeting report said, "Members agreed that should the strength of the economic expansion and the firming of labor markets persist, policy tightening likely would be needed at some point to head off imbalances that over time would undermine (the) expansion."

The minutes added, however: "A preemptive move to head off rising inflation could prove premature or perhaps even unwarranted. In the view of some, a tightening move was not inevitable."

The Fed's last rate move was in March 1997, when it raised its target for federal funds, the overnight lending rate for bank reserves, to 5.5% from 5.25%.

Kenneth Mayland, chief economist at KeyCorp, Cleveland, said inflation is so quiet-most recently 1.4%-that the Fed no longer has to worry in advance about a flare-up.

"The economy continues to perform better than what many consider the sustainable long-term rate of growth," he said. "Nevertheless, the inflation rate is so low that the Fed no longer has to act preemptively.

"Any possible change in inflation environment is going to be gradual and not dramatic," he said.

"We are not going to wake up to 14% inflation as we did in 1980. The Fed would have plenty of time to act without doing any damage to the economy or their own credibility. Preemption is out at the moment."

Nor does Mr. Mayland predict that signs of incipient inflation will appear soon enough to justify a rate move at the next policy meeting, a two-day session scheduled to begin June 30.

"I doubt there is time between now and then," he said. "The Fed needs an accumulation of evidence. They require a strong case, especially because the stock market could be adversely affected.

"Does the Fed want to get blamed for killing prosperity in America? No, they don't."

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