How low inflation averted an imminent US Fed interest rate hike

First and foremost is the fact that inflation in the United States is well below the Federal Reserve's preferred target of 2 percent.

Vivek Kaul March 19, 2015 16:23:10 IST
How low inflation averted an imminent US Fed interest rate hike

Central banks are primarily in the business of sending out messages to the financial markets. In a statement released on 28 January 2015, the Federal Reserve of the United States had said: "Based on its current assessment, the Committee judges that it can be patient in beginning to normalize the stance of monetary policy."

In simple English what this means is that the Fed would be patient when it comes to increasing the federal funds rate, which in the aftermath of the financial crisis which started in September 2008, has been in the range of 0-0.25 percent. The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which one bank lends funds maintained at the Federal Reserve to another bank on an overnight basis. It acts as a sort of a benchmark for the interest rates that banks charge on their short and medium term loans. This is the longest period for which the rate has remained at such low levels, in over fifty years.

How low inflation averted an imminent US Fed interest rate hike

No immediate interest rate hike. Reuters

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve and other central banks around the world had cut interest rates to very low levels in the hope of encouraging people to borrow and spend more, to get their moribund economies going again.

While people did borrow and spend to some extent, a lot of money was borrowed at low interest rates in the United States and other developed countries where central banks had cut rates, and it found its way into stock markets and other financial markets all over the world. This led to a massive rallies in prices of financial assets. In an era of close to zero interest rates the stock market in the United States has seen the longest bull market after the Second World War.

Given this, the stock markets in the United States and in other parts of the world have been doing well primarily because of this low interest rate scenario that prevails. With the return available from fixed income investments(like bonds and bank deposits) down to very low levels, money has found its way into the stock market.

The 28 January statement was released after a meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee(FOMC) which is mandated to decide on the federal funds rate. These meetings of the FOMC are followed very closely all over the world simply because if the Federal Reserve does decide to start raising the federal funds rate or even give a hint of it, stock markets all over the world will fall.

After the January meeting, the FOMC met again on 17-18 March 2015. In a statement that the Federal Reserve released yesterday (i.e. 18 March) after the FOMC meeting, it had dropped the word "patient". So does this mean that the Federal Reserve will start to be "impatient" when it comes to the federal funds rate?

The Federal Reserve chairperson Janet Yellen held a press conference yesterday after the two day meeting of the FOMC, in which she clarified that: "Modification of our guidance should not be interpreted to mean that we have decided on the timing of that increase. In other words, just because we removed the word "patient" from the statement doesn't mean we are going to be impatient."

So what Yellen was essentially saying is that even though the Fed had removed the word "patient" from its statement released yesterday, it was not going to be "impatient", when it comes to increasing the federal funds rate in particular and interest rates in general. Welcome to the world of central bank speak.

In fact, Yellen also clarified that the FOMC won't increase the federal funds rate when it meets next towards the end of April, next month. At the same time she said there was a chance that the FOMC might raise the federal funds rate in the meetings after April.

This statement of Yellen has led to the conclusion in certain sections of the media that the Federal Reserve will start raising interest rates June onwards, when it meets next after the April meeting. Only if things were as simple as that. Chances of the FOMC raising interest rates this year are remote. There are multiple reasons for the same.

First and foremost is the fact that inflation in the United States is well below the Federal Reserve's preferred target of 2 percent. In fact, for the month of January 2015, this number was at 1.3 percent much below the Fed’s target of 2 percent. The Fed's forecast for inflation for 2015 is between 0.6 percent to 0.8 percent. At such low inflation levels, the interest rates cannot be raised.

Inflation is down primarily because of low oil prices as well as the fact that the dollar has rallied (i.e. appreciated) against other major currencies of the world, in the process making imports cheaper for the people of United States. Lower import prices have a significant impact on inflation. The dollar has gone up in value against the yen and the euro primarily because of the money being printed by the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank. This money printing is not going to stop any time soon. As more money is printed and pumped into the financial system, interest rates are likely to remain low. At low interest rates the hope is that people will borrow and spend more and this will benefit businesses and the overall economy.

Getting back to the dollar, an appreciating currency has the same impact on the economy as higher interest rates. Higher interest rates are supposed to slowdown demand and in the process economic growth. Along similar lines when a currency appreciates, the exports of the country become expensive and this leads to a fall in exports. This slows down economic growth. Hence, in a way an appreciating dollar has already done a part of what the Fed would have done by raising interest rates.

With a lot of money printing happening in other parts of the world, chances are the dollar will continue to appreciate. Also, oil prices are likely to remain low during the course of this year, meaning low inflation in the US.

Further in December 2014, the Fed had forecast that economic growth in the US in 2015 will range between 2.6 percent to 3 percent. This has been slashed to 2.3 percent to 2.7 percent. In this scenario, it doesn't seem likely that the Federal Reserve will raise the federal funds rate any time soon (may be not during the course of 2015).

William McChesney Martin, the longest serving Federal Reserve chairman, once said that the job of the Fed is "to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going". Yellen as of now doesn't want to spoil the party. What this means is that the stock market rallies in large parts of the world are likely to continue in the days to come.

The only thing one can say at this point of time is -- stay tuned!

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

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