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February 23rd 2010

Fed Rate Hikes a Distant Prospect

Last week, the Fed raised the discount rate by 25 basis points, to .75%. Investors have consistently focused the brunt of their collective monetary attention on the Federal Funds Rate, and the markets (forex included) barely registered a response to the move. Regardless of whether apathy in this particular context was justified, investors who turn a blind eye to changes in Fed monetary policy do so at their own risk


The direct implications for the discount rate (the rate at which depository institutions borrow short-term funds from regional federal reserve banks) hikes are admittedly hazy. Some economists analyzed the move in and of itself as a signal that the Fed wants banks to borrow more from each other, and less from the Fed. Others saw it as a political move, designed to appease both inflation hawks and an angry public that is dismayed over the massive profits that banks have earned from this prolonged period of easy money. If the former are right and the move has an economic basis, then the discount rate will probably have to be hiked at least once or twice more in order to have any kind of measurable impact. If it was indeed political, then another rate hike in the near-term is unlikely.

As I said, investors remain focused on the Federal Funds Rate (the rate at which banks borrow directly from each other) as the crux of the Fed’s monetary power. In this context, the discount rate hike didn’t move the markets because the Fed, itself, cautioned investors from inferring a connection between the discount rate and the federal funds rate. Nonetheless, some analysts posited a connection anyway: “The Fed can talk all day about how the discount rate hike is technical and not a policy move, but the market sees it as a shot across the bow. Not tomorrow, or the next day, but soon, they will be lifting the Fed funds rate target as well as the economy is starting to regain momentum…” Whether this represents the mainstream perception, however, is debatable.

On the one hand, investors have been talking about a (ffr) rate hike for more than six months now. As the above analyst pointed out, the economy is growing (5.7% in the fourth quarter of 2009…not too shabby!), and most other indicators (with the notable exception of housing) are trending upwards. On the other hand, expectations for timing continue to be pushed back (the current consensus – via interest rate futures – is that there is a 70% chance of a 25 bps hike in September).  This is due in no small part to the Fed itself, whose “emissaries” are doing their best to dispel the possibility of a near-term hike.

Some samples: San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President Janet Yellen said the economy “will continue to need ‘extraordinarily low interest rates.’ ” Dennis Lockhart, the president of the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank, conveyed that, “If his forecast of slow growth proves accurate, Fed monetary policy will have to hold rates low for longer.” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard Thursday said “speculation of an imminent hike in the Fed’s target interest rate was ‘overblown,’ calling an increase in the short-term federal funds rate ‘just as far away as it ever was.’ ” There’s not much ambiguity there.

Analysts also continue to look for clues as to when the Fed will begin to reverse its quantitative easing program. “Bernanke said such steps could be taken ‘when the time comes.’ Given the weakness of the economy, Bernanke signaled that that time was still a long way off.” This kind of procrastination is not being met well, and there is concern that “the Fed will misjudge the situation and wait too long to tighten monetary conditions.” In the end, this is perceived as more of an inflation issue, and it is of secondary importance to interest rate policy for the capital markets.

Excess reserves hed at the Fed 2006-2010
Forex traders, however, would be wise to focus on both aspects; inflation erodes the Dollar over the long-term, while higher interest rates make it more attractive in the short-term. For the time being, both remain low. In the not-too-distant future, either inflation and/or interest rates must rise. If/when the markets get over their sudden fixation on the debt crisis (a long-term issue) in Europe, they will return their attention to the Fed, probably just in time for the start of some big changes.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, News, US Dollar | 1 Comment »

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One Review of “Fed Rate Hikes a Distant Prospect”

  1. Forex Links for the Weekend - February 27th | Forex Crunch Says:

    […] Adam Kritzer analyzes the latest rate moves by the Federal Reserve from a distance. The raise of the discount rate had a different impact on each currency. […]

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