The Federal Open Market Committee(FOMC) of the Federal Reserve of the United States, which is mandated to decide on the federal funds rate, met on March 17-18, 2015.
The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which one bank lends funds maintained at the Federal Reserve to another bank on an overnight basis. It acts as a sort of a benchmark for the interest rates that banks charge on their short and medium term loans.
In the meeting the FOMC decided to keep the federal funds rate in the range of 0-0.25%, as has been in the case in the aftermath of the financial crisis which broke out in September 2008. Janet Yellen, the chairperson of the Federal Reserve also clarified that “an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate remains unlikely at our next meeting in April.” The next meeting of the FOMC is scheduled on April 27-28, 2015.
The question is when will the Federal Reserve start raising the federal funds rate? As the FOMC statement released on March 18 points out: “In determining how long to maintain this target range, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 % inflation. This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.”
Other than a clear inflation target of 2%, this is as vague as it can get. The inflation number in January 2015 came in at 1.3%, well below the Fed’s 2% target. The Fed’s forecast for inflation for 2015 is between 0.6% to 0.8%. At such low inflation levels, the interest rates cannot be raised.
But the Federal Reserve wasn’t as vague in the past as it is now. In December 2012, the Federal Reserve decided to follow the Evans rule (named after Charles Evans, who is the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and also a part of the FOMC). As per the Evans rule, the Federal Reserve would keep interest rates low till the rate of unemployment fell below 6.5 % or the rate of inflation went above 2.5 %.
As the FOMC statement released on December 12, 2012 said: “ the Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 % and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6.5%, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee’s 2% longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.”
This is how things continued until March 2014, when the Federal Reserve dropped the Evans rule. In a statement released on March 19, 2014, one year back, the FOMC said: “In determining how long to maintain the current 0 to 1/4 % target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 % inflation. This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial developments.” In fact, this is exactly the wording the FOMC has used in the statement released on March 18, 2015.
What the FOMC meant in the March 2014 statement was that instead of just looking at the rate of unemployment and the rate of inflation, the Federal Reserve would also take into account other factors before deciding to raise the federal funds rate. So what made the Federal Reserve junk the Evans rule?
In February 2014, the rate of unemployment was at 6.7% and was closing in on the Evans rule target of 6.5%. In April 2014, the rate of unemployment had fallen to 6.2%.
If the Fed would have still been following the Evans rule, it would have to start raising the Federal Funds rate. This would have meant jeopardising the stock market rally which has been on in the United States. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve had cut the federal funds rate to 0-0.25%, in the hope of encouraging people to borrow and spend more, to get their moribund economies going again.
While people did borrow and spend to some extent, a lot of money was borrowed at low interest rates in the United States and other developed countries where central banks had cut rates, and it found its way into stock markets and other financial markets all over the world. This led to a massive rallies in prices of financial assets. In an era of close to zero interest rates the stock market in the United States has seen the longest bull market after the Second World War.
Any increase in the federal funds rate would jeopardise the stock market rally. And that is something that the American economy can ill-afford to. So, it is in the interest of the Federal Reserve to just let the stock market rally on.
Interestingly, the Federal Reserve has been changing the so-called “forward guidance” on raising the federal funds rate for a while now. In March 2009, it had said that short-term interest rates will stay low for an “extended period.” In August 2011, it said that short-term interest rates would stay low till “mid-2013.” In January 2012, the Fed said that short-term interest rates would remain low till “late 2014.” And by September 2012, this had gone up to “mid-2015.”
In March 2014, it junked the Evans rule. So, what this means is that the Federal Reserve will ensure that interest rates in the United States continue to stay low. Peter Schiff, the Chief Executive of Euro Pacific Capital, summarized the situation best when he said that the Federal Reserve would “keep manufacturing excuses as to why rates cannot be raised” and this was simply because it had “built an economy completely dependent on zero % interest rates.”
Given this, be prepared for Janet Yellen offering more excuses for not raising the federal funds rate in the days to come.
The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Mar 20, 2015