Posted on February 1, 2017

Fed Points To Rising Confidence Leaving Rates Unchanged

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) reiterated in their press release today that the labor market is strengthening and the economy continues to expand at a moderate pace. The consumer is doing most of the heavy lifting as business investment remains soft, but both business and consumer confidence is rising. Inflation has ticked up, but remains below the Fed’s 2 percent long-term objective. Inflation expectations are stable.

Given the Fed’s expectation that labor markets will improve “somewhat further,” economic growth will be moderate and inflation will rise to 2 percent over the medium term, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the overnight federal funds rate at 1/2 to 3/4 percent as expected.

As always, the Fed will monitor both domestic and international developments to assess the timing and size of interest rate hikes in the future. According to the Fed’s Monetary Policy Report in mid-December, most members of the FOMC expects three rate hikes this year. At the moment, the market does not envision the next hike until May or June.

The Committee believes that monetary policy is accommodative and given low inflation, members believe that only gradual interest rate increases to levels below their assessment of the long-term normalized rate is warranted. Most members of the policy Committee estimate that the longer-term federal funds rate is likely to be 2-3/4 to 3.0 percent. It will likely be a few years until the funds rate returns to this level.

Some have been concerned about the level of bond holdings on the Fed’s balance sheet arising from the quantitative easing in the wake of the financial crisis. The Fed purchased bonds in the open market to stimulate economic activity during the Great Recession. Today’s policy statement restated that the Fed will maintain its existing policy of “reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions”.

No doubt President Trump will be happy with today’s Federal Reserve decision. He had accused the Fed during the election campaign of being politically motivated in keeping rates steady. There is some concern that the Trump administration might threaten the independence of the Fed, in direct contrast to historical presidential policy.

The new administration has created a good deal of uncertainty with respect to the size and timing of tax cuts, spending increases and regulatory rollbacks, which should boost growth and inflation.

Until recently, longer-term bond yields shot up following the results of the presidential election. Markets are expecting sizable fiscal stimulus. The post-election jump in borrowing costs filtered through to a rise in mortgage rates in both the US and Canada. In the US, steady growth in jobs, wages and the economy will continue to underpin home purchase.

In Canada (and the US), the supply of available properties is at historic lows, driving up house prices, especially in the Greater Toronto Area. With the Fed projecting three interest-rate increases this year, further increases in mortgage rates could put houses out of reach for more buyers. This, despite the Bank of Canada remaining on the sidelines.

Given the federal government’s regulatory actions to slow the housing market, higher mortgage rates driven by US rate hikes is likely to be a welcome development in Ottawa, even though it certainly does not make housing more affordable.