Consumers will probably get some time to catch their breath next week as interest rates stop their dizzying upwards ride — but keep holding on, we haven’t reached the top yet.

Officials from the Federal Reserve Board’s policy-setting
Federal Open Market Committee will gather for two days on June 27 and 28 and most experts see them leaving interest rates alone.

There are
ways to take advantage as this quiet eye of the interest rate storm passes over.

If rates don’t move, it would be just the third time in nine meetings over the past year when the FOMC hasn’t raised interest rates. The main rate it controls — the federal funds rate — currently sits at 6.5 percent. That’s up 175 basis points, or 1.75 percentage points, from May 1999.

Keep in mind that the Fed meets again on Aug. 22.


Downward pressure, upward pressure

The coming lull — and experts say that’s all it is — owes itself to recent economic data that shows consumers finally eased off spending this spring. At the same time unemployment ticked up while manufacturing activity and prices remained tame.

Unfortunately for credit card holders, mortgage shoppers and other borrowers, experts say more rate hikes will probably strike later this year.

Jobs remain relatively plentiful, incomes keep rising and energy costs show little sign of easing. Those influences could force officials to drive interest rates higher and spoil the party for people hoping the climbing was over and it was time to plant the flag on Everest and pose in their parkas.

“Car sales are lower, but not low. Home sales are lower, but not low,” says Ken Goldstein, an economist with the
Conference Board Inc., a New York-based research group. “To talk about the economy slowing as a whole, I think that’s premature.

“We’re talking about the United States and by that, I mean a $10 trillion — trillion with a ‘T’ — economy with 270 million people,” he adds. “You don’t turn around an economy that is this big that has this much momentum behind it over a very short time. It’s like trying to teach your dog to sit up and beg and expecting that five minutes later he’s doing it.”


The rock of good data, the hard place of bad data

So what’s the Fed’s beef? Experts say that despite higher debt payments, consumers haven’t really put their wallets away.

That’s a problem because too much spending can translate into too much demand for goods and services. It doesn’t help that the price of oil and other commodities keeps inching higher either. Those circumstances can combine to drive inflation higher, leading to ugly
Producer Price Index and
Consumer Price Index readings and the need for even more aggressive rate hikes later.

“More than anything else, their overriding, overarching concern is inflation,” Goldstein says. “When you take out energy, the PPI and CPI have sort of calmed down. But the question is whether this is a lull in the storm or the end of the storm and I think this is a lull.”

If so, a funds rate of as much as 8 percent could be necessary by early 2001 to cool things down. The corresponding Wall Street Journal prime rate would be — yikes! — 11 percent. Maybe it’s time to take the money for that Himalayas expedition and put it toward debt reduction instead.

“We think there’s still a lot of underlying strength in the economy and that when you couple that with the fact inflation is already sort of borderline at best as far as the Fed is concerned, there’s certainly the potential for further increases,” says Ron Talley, an economist with the consulting firm
WEFA Inc. in Eddystone, Pa. “We’re sort of on a knife’s edge right now.”