All eyes are on the Federal Reserve this week and the often-discussed question: Will they or won’t they raise rates? Here at Astor, our prediction of what we believe the Fed will do (spoiler alert: we don’t expect a rate rise in September) comes down to two important data points: employment and inflation.
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These data points relate directly to the mandate of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) as stated in The Federal Reserve Act, particularly to promote the goals of maximum employment and stable prices. In the chart below, the blue horizontal band represents the inflation target (roughly 2%) as set by the FOMC, while the pink vertical band shows the unemployment rate (roughly 5%).
We can see that as of August 2016 (far left), the Fed has made progress in fulfilling its mandates. The unemployment rate has been cut in half, from the high of 10% in October 2009 (in January 2010 it was still a lofty 9.8%) to 4.9% in August 2016. Inflation, meanwhile, has been not been above the Fed’s target for more than a month or two.
Looking ahead, the question that we believe is on the collective mind of the Fed is what will happen a year or two out, particularly with unemployment being so low. Will a relatively tight labor market lead to higher wages and, in turn, force inflation higher, above the Fed’s target? Recent speeches and comments made by central bankers seems to us an FOMC that is divided on this issue.
The “hawks” have been making their case for raising interest rates; in their view, with unemployment being so low, inflation looks certain to increase. For instance, earlier this month, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston President Eric Rosengren said “a reasonable case can be made” for tightening interest rates to avoid overheating the economy.
On the other hand, the “doves,” who favor keeping interest rates steady, see additional slack in the labor market; with economic growth slowing, they don’t believe higher rates are necessary. Fed Governor Lael Brainard, for example, said in a recent speech that leaving rates unchanged since December 2015 “has served us well in recent months, helping to support continued gains in employment and progress on inflation.”
Here at Astor, our analysis of the Fed’s comments is that the FOMC will refrain from raising rates in September. (We’re not alone in that view: As the Wall Street Journal reported, the widespread expectation in the market is for rates to stay steady.) Come December, though—a full year after the last rate hike, and with another quarter of economic data to digest—we believe the Fed will take the next step and raise rates.
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