Don’t be a loser
It looks as if the Federal Reserve will stand pat on interest rates on Wednesday. That risks making Chair Janet Yellen look inconsistent. The U.S. central bank in December raised the overnight cost of money from essentially zero to 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent, then held steady in January. It’s hard to find good arguments against another modest increase.
Overall, the environment looks similar to the situation in December. On some measures important to the Fed, it’s better. Employment, for example, has strengthened further, with the headline jobless rate falling another notch to 4.9 percent and the broad U-6 measure down to 9.7 percent from 9.9 percent in November.
There are also signs that U.S. inflation could finally be turning up, as Stanley Fischer, the Fed vice chairman, said in a speech last week. The personal consumption expenditures inflation index, excluding food and energy, rose to 1.7 percent year-on-year in January from 1.3 percent in October – closer to the Fed’s 2 percent target. A New York Fed survey of consumers’ expectations of inflation ticked higher in February, too.
Economic growth admittedly looks a touch weaker. The IMF in January downgraded its forecast for this year’s increase in global GDP to 3.4 percent from 3.6 percent. And over the most recently reported 12-month period, U.S. output expanded 1.9 percent, against 2.2 percent in the year to September 2015. In December, the Fed predicted 2.4 percent U.S. growth this year.
Then again, markets have regained some of their mojo. Stocks dipped early this year but have largely regained December’s levels. Yields on 10-year Treasury bonds remain below 2 percent – they were above that level three months ago – but the weakening of the dollar since late last year should make the Fed less concerned about competitiveness of U.S. exports.
Financing conditions matter, too. Richard Handler, boss of securities firm Jefferies, noted on Tuesday that equity and high-yield markets had “aggressively snapped back” after virtually shutting down in January and February.
The Fed may still think conditions are worryingly weak. But that’s the view of investors accustomed to artificially cheap money – and interest rates are still well below normal. If Yellen and her colleagues don’t move again soon, they’re listening too hard to the markets lobby.