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Fed’s interest rate history: A look at the fed funds rate from the 1980s to the present

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Interest rates are on the rise, but they’re still historically cheap.

That’s partially because the federal funds rate — a key borrowing benchmark set by the Federal Reserve — has remained below its historic average for the past 16 years. In fact, the Fed’s key rate spent nine of those years at the rock-bottom level of 0 percent, first from 2008 through 2015, and then from March 2020 to March 2022.

The Fed’s rate once soared to a target level as high as 20 percent in the early 1980s.

The fed funds rate matters because it has ripple effects on every aspect of consumers’ financial lives, from how much they’re charged to borrow to how much they earn in interest when they save. The Fed’s rate affects the annual percentage rate (APR) on credit cards, home equity lines of credit (HELOCs), auto loans and adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs), as well as yields on certificates of deposit (CDs) and savings accounts. Even mortgages, which the Fed doesn’t directly influence, tend to copy the fed funds rate’s path.

Here’s how the federal funds rate has changed through history, according to records of Fed policy moves. Each change is reflected in “basis points,” which represent one-hundredth of a percent.

Fed interest rates through history:

1981-1990: The Fed fights the “Great Inflation”

The fed funds rate has never been as high as it was in the 1980s.

Most of that is because the Fed wanted to combat inflation, which soared in 1980 to its highest level on record: 14.6 percent.

As a result, the U.S. central bank did something that might seem counterintuitive for an institution that strives to maintain the most productive economy possible: It manufactured a recession to bring prices back down.

The fed funds rate began the decade at a target level of 14 percent in January 1980. By the time officials concluded a conference call on Dec. 5, 1980, they hiked the target range by 2 percentage points to 19-20 percent, its highest ever.

Rates then began drifting downward sharply, falling first to a target range of 13-14 percent on Nov. 2, 1982, then down to 11.5-12 percent on July 20, 1982. After some oscillation, interest rates haven’t eclipsed 10 percent since November 1984. The “effective” fed funds rate averaged at 9.97 percent during this 10-year period.

But the Fed has changed almost as much as interest rates since then. Instead of slowly and gradually moving rates in one direction (up or down), officials in this decade would often hike their benchmark rate, then cut it, then raise it again. The Fed would also adjust rates at unscheduled meetings more often than not, after which it wouldn’t release policy statements. The fed funds rate also wouldn’t hold in as tight of a target range as the Fed likes it to today, sometimes spanning 5 percentage points instead of a 0.25 percentage point window. Those changes highlight a new mantra for the Fed: Avoid surprising markets, and you avoid unduly financial tightening.

Chairman Paul Volcker was the main driver of Fed policy in this decade, leading the Fed until Chairman Alan Greenspan took the post in August 1987.

1991-2000: The Greenspan-era Fed

Fed rate moves
Meeting date Rate change Target
Source: Fed’s board of governors
January 9, 1991: Conference call -25 basis points 6.75 percent
February 1, 1991: Conference call -50 basis points 6.25 percent
March 8, 1991: Unscheduled move -25 basis points 6 percent
April 30, 1991: Conference call -25 basis points 5.75 percent
Aug. 5, 1991: Conference call -25 basis points 5.5 percent
Sept. 13, 1991: Conference call -25 basis points 5.25 percent
Oct. 30, 1991: Conference call -25 basis points 5 percent
Nov. 5, 1991 -25 basis points 4.75 percent
Dec. 6, 1991 (After a Dec. 2, 1991, conference call) -25 basis points 4.5 percent
Dec. 20, 1991 (After Dec. 17, 2001, meeting) -50 basis points 4 percent
April 9, 1992: Unscheduled move -25 basis points 3.75 percent
June 30-July 1, 1992 -50 basis points 3.25 percent
Sept. 4, 1992: Unscheduled move -25 basis points 3 percent
Feb. 3-4, 1994 +25 basis points 3.25 percent
March 22, 1994 +25 basis points 3.5 percent
April 18, 1994: Emergency meeting +25 basis points 3.75 percent
May 17, 1994 +50 basis points 4.25 percent
Aug. 16, 1994 +50 basis points 4.75 percent
Nov. 15, 1994 +75 basis points 5.5 percent
Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 1995 +50 basis points 6 percent
July 5- 6, 1995 -25 basis points 5.75 percent
Dec. 19, 1995 -25 basis points 5.5 percent
Jan. 30-31, 1996 -25 basis points 5.25 percent
March 25, 1997 +25 basis points 5.5 percent
Sept. 29, 1998 -25 basis points 5.25 percent
Oct. 15, 1998: Emergency meeting -25 basis points 5 percent
Nov. 17, 1998 -25 basis points 4.75 percent
June 29-30, 1999 +25 basis points 5 percent
Aug. 24, 1999 +25 basis points 5.25 percent
Nov. 16, 1999 +25 basis points 5.5 percent
Feb. 1-2, 2000 +25 basis points 5.75 percent
March 21, 2000 +25 basis points 6 percent
May 16, 2000 +50 basis points 6.5 percent

After a tumultuous few years for the Fed during the Great Inflation, Greenspan faced a much calmer period, though that’s not to say he didn’t have his fair share of challenges during his near 18-year tenure at the helm of the Fed.

After an eight-month recession beginning in August 1990, Greenspan and Co. managed to take the fed funds rate all the way up to a target level of 6.5 percent in May 2000, the highest of the period. Rates reached a low of 3 percent in September 1992, the lowest of the decade.

Besides during the early 1990s, the Fed mainly adjusted rates at Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meetings, a practice that is in rhythm with today’s Fed. Officials did hike rates on April 19, 1994, at an emergency meeting due to inflation worries, and they cut borrowing costs at an unscheduled Oct. 15, 1998, gathering.

Another noteworthy feat, the U.S. central bank also made its first “insurance” cuts, meaning officials cut interest rates to give the economy an extra boost, not to fight a recession. Such was the case in 1995, 1996 and 1998, when the financial system confronted a share of headwinds ranging from debt default in Russia to a major hedge fund’s collapse.

2001-2010: The dotcom bust, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the financial crisis of 2008

Rate cuts 2001-2003
Meeting date Rate change Target
Source: Fed’s board of governors
Jan. 3, 2001: Emergency meeting -50 basis points 6 percent
Jan 30-31, 2001 -50 basis points 5.5 percent
March 20, 2001 -50 basis points 5 percent
April 18, 2001: Emergency meeting -50 basis points 4.5 percent
May 15, 2001 -50 basis points 4 percent
June 26-27, 2001 -25 basis points 3.75 percent
Aug. 21, 2001 -25 basis points 3.5 percent
September 17, 2001: Emergency meeting -50 basis points 3 percent
Oct. 2, 2001 -50 basis points 2.5 percent
Nov. 6, 2001 -50 basis points 2 percent
Dec. 11, 2001 -25 basis points 1.75 percent
Nov. 6, 2002 -50 basis points 1.25 percent
June 24-25, 2003 -25 basis points 1 percent
Rate hikes 2004-2006
Meeting date Rate change Target
Source: Fed’s board of governors
June 29-30, 2004 +25 basis points 1.25 percent
Aug. 10, 2004 +25 basis points 1.5 percent
Sept. 21, 2004 +25 basis points 1.75 percent
Nov. 10, 2004 +25 basis points 2 percent
Dec. 14, 2004 +25 basis points 2.25 percent
Feb. 1-2, 2005 +25 basis points 2.5 percent
March 22, 2005 +25 basis points 2.75 percent
May 3, 2005 +25 basis points 3 percent
June 29-30, 2005 +25 basis points 3.25 percent
Aug. 9, 2005 +25 basis points 3.5 percent
Sept. 20, 2005 +25 basis points 3.75 percent
Nov. 1, 2005 +25 basis points 4 percent
Dec. 13, 2005 +25 basis points 4.25 percent
Jan. 31, 2006 +25 basis points 4.5 percent
March 28, 2006 +25 basis points 4.75 percent
May 10, 2006 +25 basis points 5 percent
June 29, 2006 +25 basis points 5.25 percent
Rate cuts 2007-2008
Meeting date Rate change Target & target range
Source: Fed’s board of governors
Sept. 18, 2007 -50 basis points 4.75 percent
Oct. 30-31, 2007 -25 basis points 4.5 percent
Dec. 11, 2007 -25 basis points 4.25 percent
Jan. 22, 2008: Emergency meeting -75 basis points 3.5 percent
Jan. 29-30, 2008 -50 basis points 3 percent
March 18, 2008 -75 basis points 2.25 percent
April 29-30, 2008 -25 basis points 2 percent
Oct 8, 2008: Emergency meeting -50 basis points 1.50 percent
Oct. 28-29, 2008 -50 basis points 1 percent
Dec. 15-16, 2008 -100 to 75 basis points 0-0.25 percent

The 2000s were the Fed’s most rhythmic period yet, with the Fed following clear cycles for both tightening and loosening rates.

To start the decade, the Fed slashed interest rates 13 times to a low of 1 percent — a range that might’ve been unthinkable for those who remembered rates in the ‘80s — after a stock market bubble in the technology sector burst, kickstarting a recession that was exacerbated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The U.S. central bank then managed to hike interest rates 17 times between 2004 and 2006 — all of those increases in gradual, quarter-point moves — to a high of 5.25 percent.

That was until the financial crisis of 2008 happened and the ensuing Great Recession, which slammed the brakes on the economy. The Fed then did the unthinkable: It slashed interest rates by 100 basis points to near-zero. Chairman Ben Bernanke led the Fed during this period, which was, at the time, one of its most aggressive economic rescue efforts in Fed history.

2011-2020: Recovering from the Great Recession and the coronavirus pandemic

Rate hikes 2015-2018
Meeting date Rate change Target range
Source: Fed’s board of governors
Dec. 15-16, 2015 +25 basis points 0.25-0.5 percent
Dec. 13-14, 2016 +25 basis points 0.5-0.75 percent
March 14-15, 2017 +25 basis points 0.75-1 percent
June 13-14, 2017 +25 basis points 1-1.25 percent
Dec. 12-13, 2017 +25 basis points 1.25-1.5 percent
March 20-21, 2018 +25 basis points 1.5-1.75 percent
June 12-13, 2018 +25 basis points 1.75-2 percent
Sept. 25-26, 2018 +25 basis points 2-2.25 percent
Dec. 18-19, 2018 +25 basis points 2.25-2.5 percent
Rate cuts 2019-2020
Meeting date Rate change Target range
Source: Fed’s board of governors
July 30-31, 2019 -25 basis points 2-2.25 percent
Sept. 17-18, 2019 -25 basis points 1.75-2 percent
Oct. 29-30, 2019 -25 basis points 1.5-1.75 percent
March 3, 2020: Emergency meeting -50 basis points 1-1.25 percent
March 14-15, 2020: Emergency meeting -100 basis points 0-0.25 percent

The Fed couldn’t escape zero rates in the 2010s just as much as it couldn’t escape devastating recessions.

Officials would ultimately end up leaving interest rates at rock-bottom until 2015, after which they only hiked interest rates by 25 basis points once per year. That is, until 2017, when the Fed hiked three times, and 2018, when they hiked four more times. The fed funds rate peaked at 2.25-2.5 percent.

Facing tepid inflation and moderating growth, the Fed also decided in 2019 to cut interest rates three times to give the economy a fresh boost — similar to Greenspan’s “insurance” cuts of the 1990s.

The fed funds rate looked like it was about to settle there until the coronavirus pandemic came along, ushering back in another era of near-zero rates. The Fed slashed rates to zero across two emergency meetings within 13 days of each other as the gears of the economy came to a halt.

Chair Janet Yellen took the helm of the Fed from Bernanke in February 2014 and steered the economy through its Great Recession recovery until February 2018, when Chair Jerome Powell was installed.

2021-present: As inflation returns, what will the Fed do next?

Rate hikes 2022-Present
Meeting date Rate change Target range
Source: Fed’s board of governors
March 15-16, 2022 +25 basis points 0.25-0.5 percent
May 3-4, 2022 +50 basis points 0.75-1 percent

The Fed hiked interest rates by a quarter point in March 2022 for the first time since 2018, leaving interest rates at near-zero percent for two years to give the economy time to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Breaking another milestone, the Fed raised interest rates by half a percentage point during its May gathering, the largest rate hike since 2000.

Officials felt comfortable leaving their foot on the gas even as inflation soared to a 40-year high. Experts say U.S. central bankers usually worry about the wrong conflict. Just how officials spent the 1990s worried about inflation, the Fed probably spent the early 2020s fearing too-low inflation, says Scott Sumner, monetary policy chair at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.

By many standards, an entirely different U.S. central bank is steering the boat, meaning officials don’t want to tame inflation with aggressive, volatile rate hikes similar to the 1980s, Sumner says.

Still, investors are bracing for one of the most aggressive tightening cycles in decades, underscoring the importance of preparing your wallet for a new, higher-rate era. The Fed penciled in seven total rate hikes for 2022, but markets are bracing for rates to rise by a whopping 3 percentage points alone this year. Concentrate on eliminating high-interest debt, boosting your credit score and shopping around for the best most competitive savings accounts where you can park your cash.

“Central banks tend to focus on fighting the last war,” Sumner says. “If you have a lot of inflation, you get a more hawkish stance. If you’ve undershot your inflation target, then the Fed thinks, ‘Well, maybe we should’ve been more expansionary.’ Powell came into his job with that determination, that if there was another recession, they would be more aggressive. My own view is that the strategy was relatively successful at first but pushed too far.”

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Written by
Sarah Foster
U.S. economy reporter
Sarah Foster covers the Federal Reserve, the U.S. economy and economic policy. She previously worked for Bloomberg News, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily Herald.
Edited by
Senior wealth editor