The Federal Reserve wrapped up a two-day meeting in Washington Wednesday, leaving short-term interest rates unchanged at near historic lows.
The move was widely expected: The central bank indicated as recently as December that investors weren’t likely to see a rate hike before summer. But the Fed’s actions were being closely watched nonetheless. With the summer deadline now two months closer, recent moves by the European Central Bank to bolster the continent’s economy have complicated the Fed’s upcoming choice.
The upshot is that for now U.S. consumers should be able to rest assured. Ultra-low interest rates mean borrowing costs for mortgages and other loans are unlikely to climb dramatically. But investors won’t have it so easy: Stock and bond traders will continue to fret about U.S. and European officials’ decisions, meaning more volatility like the sharp drop in Treasury yields (and rise in bond values) that took place earlier this month.
The Fed’s last meeting took place in mid-December amid feelings of increasing economic optimism. The U.S. economy had logged 3.9% GDP growth in the third quarter and the November jobs report was one of the best in months. That’s largely continued. Throw in an assist from cheap gas, and it’s no surprise the President Obama felt safe bragging about the ecomony in last week’s State of the Union.
In short, many Americans are beginning to feel like things are normal again. That’s usually the signal for the Federal Reserve to return interest rates to a more regular footing. Raising rates can slow economic growth — that’s why the Fed doesn’t want to move to soon. But keeping them low can stoke inflation. At 1.6%, well below the Fed’s 2% target, that’s not an immediate problem. The worry is that once inflation starts to rise, it can quickly get out of control.
The Fed’s decision is so tough this time around because it took such extraordinary measures to prop up the economy in the wake of the Great Recession. While so far the Fed’s strategy seems to have worked, no one likes being uncharted territory. Fed officials may feel some pressure to return monetary policy to something that feels normal.
One big problem, however, is that even as the U.S. economy has improved, much of the rest of the world continues to lag. Last week struggles in Europe prompted the ECB, Europe’s equivalent of the Fed, to undertake some extraordinary actions of its own, committing to buy tens of billions of dollars in debt each month in a new bid to stimulate the continent’s economy.
With the global economy so intertwined, the Federal Reserve has to worry weakness and instability overseas could put a drag on otherwise healthy U.S. economic expansion. In particular, the ECB’s move, the equivalent of printing billions of Euros, is likely to weaken the common currency against the dollar. That will make it more expensive for U.S. companies to export their goods — ultimately hurting profits and also providing another check on U.S. inflation.
The upshot is that if the Fed was feeling ready to act sooner rather than later, the situation overseas may be giving it second thoughts. Of course, the Fed has given itself until summer to decide. So it’s got some breathing room, if not quite as much as it did in December.
But in the meantime don’t expect jittery traders to sit tight. The Dow dropped 100 points after the Fed’s announcement from 17,452 to 17,319, while Treasury yields fell as bonds rallied. You can expect more of that kind of drama.