The US Fed, in its last policy meet for the year, held on 15th and 16th of Dec, decided to break it’s near zero interest rate trends. The US Federal Reserve on 16th Dec, 2015 decided to raise its interest rates for the first time after the sub-prime crisis era. Although, the hike was anticipated much earlier in the year, lack of strong data in terms of unemployment rates and inflation was a hindrance. Ultimately, on the basis of fairly strong data, the Fed has decided to step on the gas. The question is” was this a wrong move”? In this blog, I will focus on the data considered by thr Feds for a policy action, inflation targeting, rationale behind the rate hike decision, why is the hike unconventional and the history of the impact of such unconventional measures. To conclude, I would provide an insight on the policy modes of the major economies, the likely impacts on the US economy, global growth and the financial markets worldwide.
The Federal Reserve, in its final policy for the year, increased the interest rates by 25 bps from 0%-0.25% to 0.25%-0.50%. Fed was focusing on the data from the past 5 years to understand the feasibility of a rate hike. For the readers, it is important to know that a rate hike will start taming inflation and choke the growth in the medium term. Feds have been closely tracking two critical indicators namely, unemployment rate and the retail inflation numbers. Feds had their targets for unemployment rate to drop below the 5% levels while inflation rates to touch 2% trending northwards. The growth rate so far has been on the lower side, but as every other developing and developed economy, the US is has a focused inflation targeting.
Here’s a graph to explain the readers briefly the interest rates and inflation trend:
The rationale of the US Fed behind the rate hike was a fairly upward trending inflation and lower unemployment rates. The above images show that, despite not achieving the inflation target and the unemployment rate benchmarks, the Fed increased its interest rates in a non conventional manner. The tone of the policy statement indicated that they are expecting the inflation figures to rise further and the unemployment rate to continue its downward trend as shown in the graph. Inflation is rising but the average figures for the year 2015 is 0.5%. It is unlikely that the figures will rise up to the 2% levels in the near future due to lack of domestic demand in the US. On the other hand, a rate hike will choke the growth as well as tame inflation, which will beat the purpose of the rate hike in the first place. Secondly, the Fed said they expect the unemployment rate to inch downwards from here on. But here’s what has happened from 1971 till date to the unemployment rates whenever the interest rates have been change. Unemployment is directly related to the movement of the interest rates. The below graph and the movements suggest that even the intent of bringing the unemployment rate down is not achieved with a rate hike. Its a challenge from here on how the Feds are going to contain the effects or if I may say the ill-effects of the decision.
Lets take a look at the history of the effects of unconventional policy actions. European central bank raised the rates twice in 2011, killing a nascent recovery and plunging the euro zone into a double-dip recession that it is still struggling to overcome. In between the years 2004-06, Feds steady quarter point increase in the rates (which was an attempt to avoid the bubble creation), was not enough to stop the implosion of the housing bubble in 2008. In the above mentioned scenarios, the problem was either the central banks acted too slow or too fast, whereas it would have been prudent to take appropriate actions.
With growth still sputtering in Europe, the ECB has been embracing the tools used by the Feds years ago to revive the economy i.e Quantitative Easing. ECB has kept its rates to near zero levels to try and revive the economic conditions with QE, although the revival might take a little more time than expected. Whereas in Asia, PBOC (People’s Bank of China) is also on a easing mode. Similarly Japan is keeping its interest rates at rock bottom levels to encourage growth. India as well has joined them by reducing its interest rates by almost 125 bps from Jan 2015. With the globe on easing mode, it is going to difficult for the US to justify its tightening with the global growth being already quiet subdued. The growth rates for the US in the first half of 2017 are expected to be on the lower side because of the tightening. US also has been a reasonable contributor to the global growth, and with this tightening we can expect a much lower share from the US and consequently lower global growth. The USD as well is expected to harden against the rest of the currencies hurting the exports and thus undermining the trade balance. Markets all over the globe are expected to reap fairly low returns as compared to last year in the medium term. To sum up, with its unconventional policy actions of a hike when the rest of the economies easing to spur growth, the Fed has increased the probability of a further slowdown in the US. If there is no inflation, the growth cannot happen or if I may say if there is no growth, there might not be any rise in the inflation. Currently, US does not have either in place (Insufficient growth to drive inflation and insufficient inflation to drive growth). But, on the brighter side, with US, China, Europe and Japan on a slow lane, India might be the star performer in the coming year with highest growth rate in the emerging economies as well as the world. But, with winter session wiping out without the GST passage, the path on the fast lane does not seem to be easy. However, the prospects for India are significantly good from here on with an expectation of the reforms rolling out in the budget session.