Investors are beginning> to wonder when the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates. Judging by last week s Fed meeting, it probably won t be anytime soon, these brokerages say.
Who s Talking: Liz Ann Sonders, Senior Vice President and Chief Investment Strategist, Charles Schwab & Co.
The Gist: The Fed may be shifting gears on the economy, but it s in no hurry to raise interest rates.
The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting last week gave no hint of an answer about when the Fed will end its monetary stimulus, says Sonders. (The fed funds target rate remained unchanged, between 0% and 0.25%, a range that has been in place since December 2008.) But the announcement was more detailed and optimistic than previous statements, leaving some wondering if the Fed may be closer than expected to raising interest rates, says Sonders. Words such as increased and picked up replaced words from previous announcements such as leveling out and stabilizing. The Fed said fiscal and monetary stimulus and improving financial conditions would support a strengthening of economic growth and a gradual return to higher levels s of resource utilization in a context of price stability. It also said it will slow its purchasing of mortgage-backed securities and housing-agency bonds, eventually ending a $1.45 trillion program.
These are slight shifts in the Fed s stance, says Sonders, but the Fed won t pull back the reins any time soon, since it is highly sensitized to the fact that the U.S. private sector is still winding out of extreme over-leverage.
It also wouldn t want to repeat the mistakes of the Great Depression, she says, when the government pulled back on economic stimulus programs too quickly. The Fed also has to pursue policies that fall in line with its dual mandate of full employment and low inflation. And since unemployment has climbed all the way to 9.7% but inflation is still in check (below 2%), Sonders says rate hikes are unlikely to be on the horizon.
But some still expect the Fed to act soon, and Sonders says that could happen if the Fed is forced into raising rates under conditions of stronger-than-expected economic growth. Inflation, on the other hand, isn t likely to drive Fed rate hikes, she says, since banks are still stockpiling reserves and shrinking their assets. Meanwhile, demand for credit is still down. There is also still excess global capacity for manufacturers around the world, which doesn t add up to the makings of an inflation problem, she says.
Overall, the economy still has room to grow more robustly without raising rates, says Sonders. That is, as long as there isn t a sharp drop in unemployment and/or a meaningful uptick in inflation expectations.
Who s Talking: The Wells Fargo Securities Economics Group
The Gist: Interest rates probably won t move for another year or so, but several factors could alter that prediction.
The federal funds rate should remain unchanged through mid-2010, the group says, but there are risks that could change that: the dollar, the fiscal policy exit strategy, and the relationship between domestic policy and global investors. The dollar has been weak in recent weeks, which indicates a risk of currency depreciation. Those conditions can lead to rapid increases in interest rates for countries like the U.S. that have large fiscal deficits financed in large part by foreign entities, the group says. Why? Investors in the bond and currency markets, especially China, may be disappointed in February when the Obama administration presents its annual budget projections for the years ahead. The combination of dollar weakness and a loss of confidence in U.S. fiscal policy tends to push interest rates up, the group says.
Meanwhile, the Fed has been injecting liquidity into the mortgage market and keeping interest rates on Treasury and mortgage-backed securities lower than they would be otherwise. The Fed announced last week that it would gradually begin reducing its purchases of mortgage-backed securities, but that strategy may not go as smoothly as planned, the group says. Higher mortgage rates could slow home sales, which in turn could lead to a political backlash for the Obama administration. Considering the high rate of job losses and slow gains in personal income, the average consumer doesn t have much room to endure higher interest rates, the group says. But no one is expecting the transition away from monetary and fiscal stimulus to be seamless, says the group. After all, exits are never easy.