Here’s the real reason why US Federal Reserve did not raise interest rates

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) of the Federal Reserve of the United States, the American central bank, has decided to stay put and not raise the federal funds rate for the time being, as it has for a very long time now.

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.

The market was split down the middle on what they expected the Federal Reserve to do. The Federal Reserve has maintained the federal funds rate in the range of zero to 0.25% in the aftermath of the financial crisis which started in September 2008. This has been done in the hope of supporting an American economic recovery.

One view was that the Federal Reserve should start raising the federal funds rate now and get done with it. The other view was that the American economy is still in a fragile state and hence, the federal funds rate should not be raised. Also, any increase in the federal funds rate would have a bad impact on financial and asset markets all over the world, this school of thought held. And that couldn’t possibly be good for the American economy.

The FOMC led by the Federal Reserve Chairperson Janet Yellen chose to go with the latter view.  There are several reasons for the same.
The unemployment rate in the United States fell to 5.1% of the civilian labour force in August 2015. Nonetheless, this number does not take into account those who are working part-time even though they want to work full time. It also does not take into account those who want to work but haven’t actively searched for a job recently.

In fact, the number to look at is the labour force participation ratio. The World Bank defines this as: “the proportion of the population ages 15 and older that is economically active: all people who supply labour for the production of goods and services during a specified period.”

The number had stood at 66% in January 2008 before the start of the financial crisis. As of August 2015 it stands at 62.6%. In August 2014 the number was at 62.9%. Hence, the labour force participation ratio has fallen over the last one year, despite the unemployment rate going down. This means that people have been dropping out of the workforce as they get discouraged at not finding a job and then stop looking for it.

Further, the Federal Reserve has been aiming for an inflation of 2%. As yesterday’s FOMC statement said: “the Committee expects inflation to rise gradually toward 2 percent over the medium term.”

The measure of inflation that the Federal Reserve likes to look at is the core personal consumption expenditure (PCE) deflator. The core PCE deflator is at 1.24%, which is nowhere near 2% that the Federal Reserve is aiming for. A stronger dollar which has made imports into America cheaper as well as lower oil prices are the major reasons for the same.

Interestingly, the FOMC in its statement yesterday said: “Recent global economic and financial developments may restrain economic activity somewhat and are likely to put further downward pressure on inflation in the near term.” This is the first time this line has made it into the FOMC statement.

What does it mean by this? As Yellen said in a press conference that followed the release of the FOMC statement: “The outlook abroad appears to have become more uncertain of late. And…heightened concerns about growth in China and other emerging market economies have led to volatility in financial markets.”

In the press conference that nobody asked Yellen about what did she really mean by this. Chinese economic growth has been slowing down. Many analysts have argued that China is not growing at the 7% growth rate that it claims to be.

In this scenario it is likely that China might devalue the yuan against the dollar further in order to push up its exports. If China devalues the yuan, Chinese exports will become more competitive as Chinese exporters are likely to cut prices. In this scenario the value of imports coming into the United States will fall further, as exporters from other countries will also have to cut prices in order to compete with the Chinese. This will mean inflation falling further. In my opinion, this is what Yellen and the FOMC really meant.

In the press conference Yellen said that she expects that the FOMC will raise the federal funds rate before the end of this year. The direction in which the Chinese economic growth will unravel is unlikely to become clear so soon.

What this means is that the era of easy money unleashed by the Federal Reserve in late 2008, is likely to continue in the months to come. The Federal Reserve is unlikely to raise the federal funds rate this year. Not surprisingly the stock market in India is having a good day, with the BSE Sensex having rallied by more 470 points or 1.8%, as I write this.

Also, now that the FOMC hasn’t raised interest rates, calls for the RBI governor Raghuram Rajan to cut the repo rate are going to get louder.

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on Sep 18, 2015

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)