Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke is waging an epochal battle behind the scenes for control of US monetary policy, struggling to overcome resistance from regional Fed hawks for further possible stimulus to prevent a deflationary spiral.
Fed watchers say Mr Bernanke and his close allies at the Board in Washington are worried by signs that the US recovery is running out of steam. The ECRI leading indicator published by the Economic Cycle Research Institute has collapsed to a 45-week low of -5.7 in the most precipitous slide for half a century. Such a reading typically portends contraction within three months or so.
Key members of the five-man Board are quietly mulling a fresh burst of asset purchases, if necessary by pushing the Fed's balance sheet from $2.4 trillion (£1.6 trillion) to uncharted levels of $5 trillion. But they are certain to face intense scepticism from regional hardliners. The dispute has echoes of the early 1930s when the Chicago Fed stymied rescue efforts.
"We're heading towards a double-dip recession," said Chris Whalen, a former Fed official and now head of Institutional Risk Analystics. "The party is over from fiscal support. These hard-money men are fighting the last war: they don't recognise that money velocity has slowed and we are going into deflation. The only default option left is to crank up the printing presses again."
Mr Bernanke is so worried about the chemistry of the Fed's voting body – the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) – that he has persuaded vice-chairman Don Kohn to delay retirement until Janet Yellen has been confirmed by the Senate to take over his post. Mr Kohn has been a key architect of the Fed's emergency policies. He was due to step down this week after 40 years at the institution, depriving Mr Bernanke of a formidable ally in policy circles.
The Fed's statement this week shows growing doubts about the health of the recovery. Growth is no longer "strengthening": it is "proceeding". Financial conditions are now "less supportive" due to Europe's debt crisis.
The subtle tweaks in language have been enough to set bond markets alight. The yield on 10-year Treasuries has fallen to 3.08pc, the lowest since the gloom of April 2009. Futures contracts have ruled out tightening until well into next year.