When the Fed raises interest rates after a remarkably long run of near-zero rates, millions of Americans will be affected through the cost of everything from home mortgages and auto loans, as well as the cost of credit for many businesses.
Maybe December. Maybe not.
That’s about the best guess as to when and whether the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates.
If it happens, millions of Americans would be affected. The cost on things from home mortgages to auto loans, as well as credit for many businesses, would go up.
The effective federal funds rate, the central bank’s benchmark, has been close to zero since late 2008. A tiny increase of 25 basis points (aka 0.25 percent) last year so spooked policymakers that no further tightening has happened.
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Rates so low, for so long, is a phenomenon unprecedented in the post-World War II era.
How we got there traces back to the Panic of 2008, when the world financial system was on the brink of collapse and we faced a potential second Great Depression. The Fed made the deepest interest-rate cut in modern times.
Then Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke made good on his earlier promise to Milton Friedman on the Nobel laureate’s 90th birthday, “Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”
It was not sentimentality. Along with his colleague Anna Schwartz, Friedman earned his chops by arguing conclusively that the Fed helped turn a severe contraction into a prolonged depression in the 1930s by tightening credit. Bernanke, a distinguished scholar of the era himself, was determined not to make the same mistake.
Why Fed interest-rate policy has stayed there during the expansion is a subject of some debate and consternation.
Senior citizens dependent on certificates of deposit have gotten a raw deal, although research indicates those over age 65 overall have done better than other demographic groups.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says the Fed is trying to throw the election to his Democratic challenger. Conversely, economist Tyler Cowen argues that the bank’s policy, if anything, actually favors him, because the Fed is not taking more aggressive stimulus for fear of being seen as politicized.
Others worry that sustained zero rates — or negative rates, as is happening with central banks in Japan and the EU — are inflating asset bubbles or otherwise distorting the economy. And what if another shock should come? The Fed would lack the tools to substantially lower rates as it did in 2008.
Here’s some of what’s at stake: Low rates have made it less expensive to buy property. While that’s good news for potential homeowners, it adds to discontent in Seattle’s hot housing market. Wouldn’t a rate hike tamp that down?
And wouldn’t “taking away the punch bowl,” to use the words of long-serving Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin (1951-1970), ease potentially overvalued tech stocks? A meltdown there would have profound consequences in the Puget Sound region, especially with Amazon and Microsoft.
As one reader wrote me, “For eight years now interest rates have been artificially low…. This cannot continue indefinitely. Would not normal interest rates allow an Eisenhower administration economy for eight years?”
Ike also had a 91 percent income-tax rate on the highest earners. He didn’t face globalization and China as the world’s second-largest economy. And his terms saw two recessions where the Fed drove rates to near zero briefly. But I get the reader’s larger point.
The big problem is this recovery is not normal. It is the weakest expansion of the post-World War II era.
But this didn’t change the Fed’s twin mandate from Congress: high employment and price stability (aka low inflation).
Although the headline unemployment rate was 5 percent in September and as low as 4.7 percent in May — “full employment” territory — deeper trouble persists. This includes higher underemployment and lower labor-force participation by prime-age workers. Significantly, wage growth remains restrained, despite a promising 2015.
Inflation is quite tame, notwithstanding localized price phenomena such as Seattle housing.
For example, the personal consumption expenditure price index grew at less than 1 percent in August. The core consumer price index has been somewhat stronger, running around 2 percent, which is the Fed’s inflation target. (And many economists contend that target it too low).
But that hardly means rampant inflation is about to erupt. For one thing, prices are being kept in check by the worldwide economic slowdown, with a whiff of deflation, not inflation. Also, no bubble anywhere near the magnitude of 2007 is evident.
Fed policymakers have been concerned that these low rates have been necessary to continue the expansion. A gain of a point or two in CD returns would have provided little comfort if the economy had been thrown back into a recession. Last year’s slight rate hike caused a warning sputter.
Fiscal stimulus through government spending, the normal companion of monetary stimulus, has been lacking for most of the past eight years. A $787 billion stimulus was approved by Congress in 2009, but many economists argue this was insufficient to fill the hole in demand from the Great Recession. Since then, austerity has been the rule. This has added to the Fed’s dilemma.
The situation caused Fed Chair Janet Yellen to give a remarkable speech earlier this month, where she discussed how a major shock such as the Great Recession not only has immediate effects but also long-lingering consequences.
What got attention was her musing about whether the problem could be reversed by “temporarily running a ‘high-pressure economy,’ with robust aggregate demand and a tight labor market.”
University of Oregon professor Tim Duy swatted down speculation that this indicated a widening split within the Fed’s leadership or that Yellen wanted a “high-pressure economy.” We’re certainly not overheating now.
On his Fed Watch blog, Duy wrote, “The key debate within the Fed at the moment centers on the need for pre-emptive rate hikes. The hawks prefer more pre-emption, the doves favor less.”
Who will prevail? We might know as early as next month, but more likely in December. Then we’ll see how the new normal handles it.