After Months of “Star Wars”-Worthy Hype, the Fed Acts

December
21

Written by: Jon McGraw

After a level of hype that would have exhausted even the most dedicated Star Wars fans, the Federal Reserve finally began to tighten monetary policy last week, raising the funds rate from 0.25 percent to 0.50 percent.

Although financial markets appeared sanguine when the rate hike was announced, the calm dissipated quickly. The Standard & Poor’s 500, Dow Jones Industrial and Nasdaq indexes finished the week lower. International markets fared better. Most finished the week higher.

The last five times the Fed has begun to raise rates, the U.S. dollar has remained stable and stock prices have risen, on average, in the months immediately following the hike, according to The Economist.

While tightening monetary policy (and talk of tightening monetary policy) often affects financial markets immediately, economic change happens at a more measured pace. The Economist explained:

“The impact of changes in interest rates is not usually felt on announcement …The response of the real economy also comes with a delay. Most reckon it takes time for monetary policy to shift spending habits, and one rate rise is more an easing of the accelerator than a U-turn. Unemployment continued to fall in each of the past five tightening episodes. That will probably happen again … The most uncertain variable is inflation. This fell rapidly following rate rises in 1983 and 1988 as the Fed established its hawkish credentials. Yet in 2016, the most likely direction for inflation is up (the rate rise is aimed at restraining its ascent).”

Another factor affecting the U.S. and global economies is the price of oil. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported oil prices declined to a new six-year low. Falling oil prices have contributed to deflationary pressures in Europe, stunting the region’s economic recovery. They have had a mixed effect on the U.S. economy, helping consumers and hurting the energy industry.

Data as of 12/18/15 1-Week Y-T-D 1-Year 3-Year 5-Year 10-Year
Standard & Poor’s 500 (Domestic Stocks) -0.3% -2.6% -2.7% 11.5% 10.0% 4.8%
Dow Jones Global ex-U.S. 0.4 -8.0 -7.6 -0.4 -0.8 0.5
10-year Treasury Note (Yield Only) 2.2 NA 2.2 1.8 3.4 4.4
Gold (per ounce) -0.9 -11.4 -11.4 -14.4 -5.1 7.6
Bloomberg Commodity Index -1.2 -25.8 -28.6 -18.0 -13.2 -7.8
DJ Equity All REIT Total Return Index 1.6 0.6 0.8 10.3 11.9 7.2

An Age-Old Pastime

Second-guessing the Fed is an age-old American pastime. Americans have been speculating about the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy choices—rate hikes, rate declines, quantitative easing, etc.—for a long time. It’s clear when you take a look at a few modern Fed Chairs and the Fed’s activities under their leadership:

  • Paul Volcker (1979-1987) took over an economic quagmire known as The Great Inflation. In the early 1980s, U.S. inflation was 14 percent and unemployment reached 9.7 percent. Volcker unexpectedly raised the fed funds rate by 4 percent in a single month, following a secret and unscheduled Federal Open Market Committee meeting. His policies initially sent the country into recession. The St. Louis Fed reported “Wanted” posters targeted Volcker for “killing” so many small businesses. By the mid-1980s, employment and inflation reached targeted levels.
  • Alan Greenspan (1987-2006) was in charge through two U.S. recessions, the Asian financial crisis and the September 11 terrorist attacks. Regardless, he oversaw the country’s longest peacetime expansion. In the late 1990s, when financial markets were bubbly, critics suggested, “Mr. Greenspan’s monetary policies spawned an era of booms and busts, culminating in the 2008 financial crisis.”
  • Ben Bernanke (2006-2014) took the helm of the Fed just before the financial crisis and Great Recession. When economic growth collapsed in 2007, the Fed lowered rates and adopted unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing) in an effort to stimulate economic growth. In 2012, economist Paul Krugman called Bernanke out in The New York Times: “The fact is that the Fed isn’t doing the job many economists expected it to do, and a result is mass suffering for American workers.”
  • Janet Yellen (2014-present) is the current Chair of the Fed. Under Yellen’s leadership, after providing abundant guidance, the Fed raised rates for the first time in seven years. The International Business Times reported several prominent economists think the increase was premature, in part, because there are few signs of inflation in the U.S. economy.

In many cases, it’s difficult to gauge the achievements and/or failures of a leader—Fed Chair, President, Representative—until the economic or political dust settles. Sometimes, that’s long after they’ve left office.

Weekly Fun—Think About It

“We are too prone to judge ourselves by our ideals and other people by their acts. All of us are entitled to be judged by both.”

— Dwight Morrow, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico