With all the Federal Reserve dominating the news lately, some of you may be tempted to ask, “Fed, Shmed, what’s all this got to do with me?”
Well, if you’re planning to buy a house or a car, then the Fed’s handling of interest rates has a lot to do with you.
The federal funds rate impacts monetary and financial conditions, which in turn have a bearing on critical aspects of the broader economy, including employment, growth, and inflation.
“When inflation is too high, the Federal Reserve typically raises interest rates to slow the economy and bring inflation down,” the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland said on its website. “When inflation is too low, the Federal Reserve typically lowers interest rates to stimulate the economy and move inflation higher.”
Higher interest rates mean higher borrowing costs, and people will eventually start spending less.
The Fed sees a rate of inflation of 2% per year—as measured by the price index for personal consumption expenditures—as the right amount of inflation.
Jerome Powell, chairman of the US Federal Reserve, recently outlined plans for interest rates in 2024.
Looking for strong labor market
On Jan. 31, the Fed held its key interest rate steady for a fourth consecutive meeting, confirming market forecasts. Still, the central bank pushed back on the chances of a spring rate cut, warning that inflation remains elevated.
The Federal Open Market Committee held its key policy rate at between 5.25% and 5.5%, the highest in 22 years.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell sent shockwaves through the market by effectively ruling out the chances of a March rate cut, citing stubbornly high inflation and a resilient job market.
“It’s still a good labor market for wages and for finding a job. But it’s getting back into balance. And that’s what we want to see,” Powell said. “We want to see a strong labor market. We’re not looking for a weaker labor market.”
Traders are now pricing in a 38.5% chance that the Fed begins the first of its three projected rate cuts in March, according to the CME Group’s FedWatch. One month ago, the odds of a cut were 73%.
“We could hem and haw, jawbone if you will, about the perceived tea leaf reading we all just did for the last 45 minutes or so, but the only thing that matters is the idea that a March rate cut is ‘unlikely,’” said Alex McGrath, chief investment officer for NorthEnd Private Wealth. “The Market certainly did not see that coming inducing the ye olde rug pull post FOMC presser.”
Stocks fell after Powell made his comments but bounced back on Feb. 1.
‘Not a big surprise,’ analyst says
Goldman Sachs pushed back its expectation of the Fed starting to cut interest rates to May from March after Powell’s comments.
The firm maintained its forecast of five 25 basis points rate cuts this year and expects four consecutive cuts from May through September and a final cut in December.
“It is not a big surprise that the Fed isn’t rushing to cut rates,” said Real Money Pro’s James “Rev Shark” DePorre, “but the market has consistently been more dovish than the Fed and has been hanging on to hope that a series of cuts will begin in March.”
The Fed chair’s comments disappointed the hopeful bulls, DePorre said, “but this was not a hawkish Fed decision.”
“Powell was upbeat and positive about the economy and the progress that has been made on inflation,” he said.
Bill Adams, the chief economist for Comerica Bank, said that many Federal Open Markets Committee members likely think a rate cut might be appropriate by March when the FOMC will have nearly two more months of economic data in hand than they did today.
“But a significant minority of members are probably less confident that inflation is on a sustainable downward trajectory,” he said.
“Also, some FOMC members likely believe inflation is on its way back to target, but want to push back against buoyant financial market conditions–high stock market prices, narrow credit spreads in the bond market–that make the Fed’s high policy rate less restrictive to growth than it otherwise would be,” Adams said.