As the Fed begins raising interest rates, Americans should brace for pain
The Fed aims to lower inflation by reduce consumer spending and business owners who will find it more expensive to borrow.
“The impact of a quarter-point hike is inconsequential, but the cumulative effect of six to ten interest rate hikes is a whole other ball game,” said Greg McBride, financial analyst in head of the financial information site Bankrate.com.
The consumer price index jumped 7.9% in February from a year earlier, the highest rate since 1982, after a spike in oil prices triggered by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia added to already rapidly rising prices caused by pandemic supply chain disruptions, pent up demand and government spending. High inflation is hitting American families and businesses hard, threatening the strong economic recovery from the pandemic.
Inflation is also a major political issue for President Biden, who said in his State of the Union address that “my top priority is to get prices under control.” Half of respondents in a Wall Street Journal poll released on Friday ranked inflation as the most important thing the president and Congress should tackle, double the second place of the war in Ukraine. And 63% of voters registered in the poll said they disapproved of Biden’s handling of inflation.
So there’s a lot at stake economically and politically as the Fed, the federal government’s main inflation fighter, takes its first step in what is going to be a months-long effort to try to rein in soaring oil prices. gas, groceries, cars, rent and other consumer expenses.
The Fed’s task is extremely difficult as it must determine how much to raise rates without slowing the economy to the point of falling into recession. The effort is inherent in the pain of average Americans, whom the Fed is trying to discourage from spending, said Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics, a global forecasting and analysis firm.
“You don’t want it to be a killer blow, but you definitely want it to pinch consumer spending,” she said of the interest rate hikes. “To slow it down, not turn it off completely.”
When the pandemic hit two years ago, the central bank cut its key federal funds rate to near zero to spur spending. This rate applies directly only to short-term loans between banks. But banks use it as a benchmark for personal and business loans, and it also affects longer-term loans, like mortgages.
In anticipation of Wednesday’s Fed hike, mortgage rates have already risen. The average 30-year fixed-rate loan was 4.42% on Tuesday, up more than 1 percentage point since the start of the year to the highest level since 2019, according to Mortgage News Daily.
Credit card interest rates will adjust within a billing statement or two of the Fed’s rate hike, McBride said. In the past, banks have also increased the interest rate they pay customers on their deposits. But the big banks are teeming with deposits and are unlikely to raise those rates much, if at all, he said. Federally insured online banks, which are more eager for customers, are a better bet to raise their interest rates on savings and checking accounts.
Stock prices are likely to fall because higher interest rates increase borrowing costs for businesses and make stocks a less attractive investment. Major equity indices have already fallen significantly in anticipation of Fed rate hikes, as well as in reaction to the war in Ukraine. McBride said investors should ride out the volatility and avoid panicking as stocks typically rise over the longer term.
“We have already seen this film. After the dotcom meltdown, after the Great Recession and even just after the onset of the pandemic, markets fell by a third in early 2020 and have since rallied and hit new highs after new highs,” did he declare. “Don’t try to guess the market. Play the long game.
Treasury yields have also risen in anticipation of Fed rate hikes, and that’s a problem for the federal government as it must continue to fund its $30 trillion national debt.
Last July, when many economists thought high inflation would only last a few months, the Congressional Budget Office predicted the US government would pay $306 billion in debt interest this year. But that forecast was based on the Fed not raising interest rates until the middle of 2023.
If interest rates rise just 1 percentage point higher than projected over the next decade, Congress will have to find an additional $187 billion a year to pay the extra interest on the debt, according to an analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a budget watchdog group.
Jason Furman, a Harvard economist who served as chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration, said inflation wasn’t so bad when it came to the national debt. This could help ease the burden over time by reducing the amount of debt relative to the size of the economy.
Overall, Furman said he’s not concerned that gradual interest rate hikes will significantly disrupt the economy or the United States’ ability to service debt. He noted that the Congressional Budget Office expects the main Fed to 2.6% by 2031, which is still historically low.
“The era of super low interest rates is coming to an end, but we could be in the era of super low interest rates for a while,” Furman said.
But after the federal government doled out trillions of dollars in pandemic aid on top of its massive debt, any hike in interest rates could make it harder for Congress and the White House to fund national priorities and respond. to future emergencies.
“The Great Recession and the pandemic were absolutely times we should have borrowed. It was the right thing to do,” said Maya MacGuineas, chair of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. But the federal government continued to run large budget deficits when the economy was relatively strong between these two efforts.
Now the inflated interest payments on the national debt will prevent Congress and the White House from providing fiscal stimulus if the Fed’s inflation-fighting efforts push the economy to the brink of recession, MacGuineas said.
“There was a kind of senseless naivety about people who were saying in recent years, ‘Don’t worry, we can borrow because interest rates will never go up,'” she said. “Never is a long time. And now, never is here.