What to Do When Interest Rates Rise

Last year, when the Federal Reserve realized that the inflation, which was earlier thought to be “transitory,” might be feeding on itself and soon spiral out of control, it acted swiftly to respond with an aggressive interest rate hike cycle, one of the quickest on record.

As a result, we have gone from living in a world of virtually free money, marked by a target federal funds rate of 0% to 0.25%, for more than 12 years since the global financial crisis to a world of constricted credit, with a target rate at 4.50% to 4.75%, the highest since 2007.

Right on cue, the market and economy responded to the end of the era of easy money with withdrawal tantrums. Although the Fed has been able to bring down CPI inflation from a 40-year high of 9.1% in June 2022 to 6.4% in January 2023, it has come at the cost of increased market volatility, stressed margins due to increased borrowing costs, and bank runs due to bond price devaluations.

Given that the federal funds rate appears to be nothing short of a force of nature for the capital markets and the economy at large, its deeper understanding would serve market participants well.

What is the Federal Funds Rate?

The federal funds rate is the interest rate that banks charge other institutions for lending excess cash to them from their reserve balances on an overnight basis.

Legally, all banks are required to maintain a percentage of their deposits as a reserve in an account at a Federal Reserve bank. This mandated amount is known as the reserve requirement, and compliance of a bank is determined by averaging its end-of-the-day balances over two-week reserve maintenance periods.

Banks, which expect to have end-of-the-day balances greater than the reserve requirement, can lend the surplus to institutions that expect to have a shortfall.

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) guides this overnight lending of excess cash among U.S. banks by setting the target interest rate as a range between an upper and lower limit. This target interest rate is called the federal funds rate. Continue reading "What to Do When Interest Rates Rise"

Higher Rates Are Here To Stay

If you believe what the inverted Treasury yield curve is saying, you must believe that, eventually — but probably sooner rather than later — the Federal Reserve will start lowering interest rates in response to the economic recession it will have caused by raising rates by more than 400 basis points in the past year.

But based on the strength of the economy despite those higher rates, it’s looking more like rates well above 4% - and possibly 5% — are going to be around for a long time to come.

But that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. For all those younger than 40, 4-5% long-term interest rates had been the norm for decades.

It’s only in this century that we’ve become accustomed to super-low interest rates, engineered by an activist Fed to insulate consumers and the financial markets from seemingly one financial crisis after another.

But that era looks to be over. And it looks like we’re managing.

Even though inflation appears to have peaked and is moving steadily downward, the Fed is likely to keep rates fairly high for quite a while, certainly the rest of this year and probably 2024 and beyond, absent yet another global financial crisis, to make sure the inflationary beast is truly slayed.

Even on the unlikely chance that the federal government defaults on its debt later this year if Congress can’t agree to raise the debt ceiling, the Fed isn’t likely to start lowering rates for a long time, despite what many investors hope and the inverted yield curve would indicate.

As we know, an inverted yield curve is when short-term rates are higher than long-term rates, which is the exact opposite of the natural order of things.

Long-term debt usually carries higher rates because a lot more can go wrong over, say, 10 or 20 years, than it can over just a couple of years or less. But that’s not what we have now. Continue reading "Higher Rates Are Here To Stay"

Jerome Powell's Declaration of Independence

Remember back about four or five years ago (was it really that long ago?) we heard a lot about how the Federal Reserve’s sacrosanct independence was being threatened because the incumbent in the White House at that time was trying to influence the Fed’s monetary policy?

We don’t hear that much about it anymore since the Oval Office and Congress switched sides, although the threats against that independence have grown even louder, largely because they don’t get reported on to nearly the same degree.

For example, last fall the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Sherrod Brown, and the then chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Maxine Waters, both sent letters to Fed Chair Jerome Powell decrying his recent policy of raising interest rates by more than 400 basis points since March to combat inflation. “You must not lose sight of your responsibility to ensure that we have full employment,” Brown wrote.

Around the same time Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another Democrat, said Powell “risks pushing our economy off a cliff.” Warren, who loudly voted against Powell’s reappointment as Fed chair, added, “There is a big difference between landing a plane and crashing it.”

I suppose they have a right to criticize Fed policy as much as anyone else, although that right should extend to members of both parties. To his credit, Powell has largely kept silent or muted his comments on these attacks.

But now it appears that Powell believes he is being pushed too far. Criticizing the Fed for the way it conducts monetary policy to maintain stable prices and full employment—its legal mandate from Congress, after all—is one thing.

But to force the Fed to go way beyond its mandate and do something that is the rightful purview of Congress is an entirely different matter. And Powell said he won’t stand for it.

I’m talking about the desire of many progressives and environmentalists to have the Fed impose their views on climate change on the banks the Fed regulates and the customers those banks serve. Continue reading "Jerome Powell's Declaration of Independence"

My Latest "Prediction" For 2023

Back in March I posited the notion that the S&P 500 would need to fall to about 2,900 before all of the froth that the Federal Reserve had injected into the market through its various monetary stimulus programs dating back to the Great Recession had finally burned off.

On Christmas Eve the S&P closed at 3844, which would put it 19% below its all-time high of 4,766 on December 27, 2021, or about a year to the day.

In recent days some market prognosticators have been warning that the market is poised to fall another 20%, which would put the index at about 3,000, or slightly above my guesstimate.

So do I feel vindicated, if that is the right word? No, and I hope I’m wrong anyway.

First, my guess was not a prediction, just a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation based on my assumption that the Fed was responsible for about half of the stock market’s 600% gain between the March 2009 bottom of 683 and the time I made my comment.

So, if we cut that 600% gain in half, that would reduce the S&P’s gain to a still respectable 300%, or a little below 3,000.

Not an educated estimate, maybe, but I thought a reasonable guess—a worst case scenario, if you will.

Second, we don’t know if these bears will turn out to be right. I hope they’ll be wrong.

I now believe the Fed won’t have to drive the economy into the tank in order to get inflation down to where it wants it to be, probably in the 2.5% to 3% range.

Remember, about two years, in what was considered to be a major policy shift, the Fed said it was willing to let inflation “overshoot” its long-term target of 2% for a time, as it indeed it did.

Now it looks like inflation is dropping a lot faster than most people thought, and the Fed itself is now forecasting that inflation will fall to 3.1% next year before declining in 2024 to 2.5% and 2.1% in 2025, i.e., putting it at its long-term target. Continue reading "My Latest "Prediction" For 2023"

Reasons to be Optimistic

As expected, the Federal Reserve raised the target for its benchmark federal funds interest rate by 50 basis points at its mid-December meeting, to a range between 4.25% and 4.5%.

That was down from the 75 basis-point hikes at its four previous meetings, yet the market’s immediate reaction to the move was an immediate selloff.

Was that a classic “buy on the rumor, sell on the news” reaction — i.e., the Fed delivered exactly what Chair Powell had earlier indicated it would do?

Or was there some element of disappointment that the Fed, despite the more modest rate increase, included in its updated economic projections that most officials expect to raise rates by another 100 basis points, to about 5.1%, next year?

But was that really a surprise, given earlier comments from Powell and other Fed officials?

On a positive note, according to the Fed’s revised economic projections, it now expects inflation to fall to 3.1% next year before declining in 2024 to 2.5% and 2.1% in 2025, putting it at its long-term target.

In November, the year-on-year increase in the consumer price index fell to 7.1% from 7.7% a month earlier, down sharply from June’s 9.1% peak. So it looks like the Fed is optimistic about where inflation is headed, whether its rate-rising regimen deserves the credit or not.

It's also now calling for U.S. GDP to grow by 0.5% next year, unchanged from this year’s pace, before climbing to 1.6% in 2024.

By way of comparison, the economy rebounded at an annual rate of 2.9% in the third quarter following two straight quarters of negative growth.

The Fed projects the unemployment rate to jump to about 4.5% over the next three years, up from 3.7% currently, due to its rate increases. Continue reading "Reasons to be Optimistic"