Short-term interest rates will come down again, for the seventh time since September.
The Federal Reserve cut its target for the federal funds rate by a quarter-point, from 2.25 percent to 2 percent. The prime rate will fall by a quarter-point, from 5.25 percent to 5 percent. The move spells good news to people who borrow money on loans, such as home equity lines of credit, that are linked to the prime rate. It’s not such good news for savers who want to put their money in short-term certificates of deposit.
The rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee has been slashing rates to encourage consumers to borrow, and therefore stimulate the faltering economy. At the beginning of September, the federal funds rate stood at 5.25 percent; since then, the Fed has cut it by 3.25 percentage points. It has been an unusually rapid series of rate reductions, as the Fed has tried to catch up with the economic slowdown brought on by the housing slump.
“Recent information indicates that economic activity remains weak. Although readings on core inflation have improved somewhat, energy and other commodity prices have increased, and some indicators of inflation have risen in recent months. The substantial easing of monetary policy to date, combined with ongoing measures to foster market liquidity, should help to moderate growth over time and mitigate risks to economic activity,” according to the Fed announcement.
This rate cut had been expected, with futures markets pricing in a 1-in-5 chance that the Fed would keep rates unchanged, and a 4-in-5 chance of a quarter-point cut. To the extent that anyone expected the Fed to keep rates unchanged, that sentiment stemmed from the inflation picture. As anyone who drives to the grocery store knows, prices for gasoline and food have been skyrocketing and threatening to eventually push up prices for everything.
Typically, rate cuts make inflation worse. That makes the case for holding short-term rates steady. But this isn’t a typical situation. Prices aren’t rising because the economy is booming; instead, they are rising despite an economic downturn.
“It’s a compromise between two equally persuasive arguments,” says Richard DeKaser, chief economist for National City Corp. “On the one hand, there’s an increasingly legitimate argument that inflation needs to be pre-empted more aggressively.” On the other hand, he says, “there is still risk to the economy in terms of weaker growth.”
On the inflation side, DeKaser says, the Fed has been counting on a weaker economy holding wage growth down, which in turn is supposed to put a lid on inflation. By that reasoning, the Fed can continue to goose the economy by cutting rates, and can put off worrying about inflation until after economic growth resumes. But commodity prices are surging and the dollar is weakening in relation to other currencies. Both of those factors exert upward pressure on prices, especially for imports.
By cutting short-term rates while European central banks keep their rates steady, the Fed contributes to further erosion in the dollar’s relative value. In turn, foreign companies either raise prices on exports to the United States to maintain profits, or they sell their goods to countries with stronger economies. Either way, through straight-out price increases or through scarcity, foreign-made goods become more expensive in the United States.
Inflation-fighting takes backseat
How do you turn that around? You could raise interest rates, which would eventually make prices of imports more competitive, but higher rates would restrict overall economic growth. Right now, the Fed prefers to stoke the economy by cutting rates again. Inflation-fighting is a secondary priority at the moment.
“The ongoing concerns related to inflationary pressures have to be weighing very heavily on their minds,” says Jim Baird, chief investment strategist at Plante & Moran Financial Advisors in Kalamazoo, Mich.
“They’ve pumped a lot of liquidity into the system, particularly since the beginning of the year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them take a step back and let this filter its way through the system at this point. They have to look at which of the battles they want to fight — keep prices in check to a greater degree or reduce the risk of further softening of the economy and at the same time try to provide some liquidity and stabilize the credit markets.”
This rate cut’s impact on consumers “is not likely to be very impactful, but in combination with past rate actions, it has quite a bit of impact,” says DeKaser. He believes that a lot of this impact will come via reducing the monthly debt payments that some mortgage holders will have to make.
Specifically, rates on home equity lines of credit will go down again, and that will reduce the minimum monthly payments that borrowers carrying balances will have to pay. And declining short-term rates mean less payment shock for some people with adjustable-rate mortgages.
Long-term rates, such as those for fixed-rate mortgages, don’t respond directly to the Fed’s rate decisions. Instead, long-term rates are guided by inflation expectations. They could go either way, depending on whether the bond market decides whether the Fed’s rate policy is too restrictive, too permissive or just right.
The federal funds rate is the target interest rate for banks borrowing reserves among themselves. The discount rate is the interest rate that the Fed charges banks to borrow reserves from the Federal Reserve. The Fed wants to be the lender of last resort: It wants banks to borrow from one another at the federal funds rate before borrowing from the Federal Reserve at the higher discount rate.