Financial times; interest rates
Will the Federal Reserve’s September meeting see US interest rates go up for the first time since 2006? Officials have held out the prospect that it might, and have suggested that — barring major unforeseen developments — rates will probably be increased by the end of the year. Conditions could change, and the Fed has been careful to avoid outright commitments. But a reasonable assessment of current conditions suggest that raising rates in the near future would be a serious error that would threaten all three of the Fed’s major objectives — price stability, full employment and financial stability.
Like most major central banks, the Fed has put its price stability objective into practice by adopting a 2 per cent inflation target. The biggest risk is that inflation will be lower than this — a risk that would be exacerbated by tightening policy. More than half the components of the consumer price index have declined in the past six months — the first time this has happened in more than a decade. CPI inflation, which excludes volatile energy and food prices and difficult-to-measure housing, is less than 1 per cent. Market-based measures of expectations suggest that, over the next 10 years, inflation will be well under 2 per cent. If the currencies of China and other emerging markets depreciate further, US inflation will be even more subdued.
Tightening policy will adversely affect employment levels because higher interest rates make holding on to cash more attractive than investing it. Higher interest rates will also increase the value of the dollar, making US producers less competitive and pressuring the economies of our trading partners.
This is especially troubling at a time of rising inequality. Studies of periods of tight labour markets like the late 1990s and 1960s make it clear that the best social programme for disadvantaged workers is an economy where employers are struggling to fill vacancies.
There may have been a financial stability case for raising rates six or nine months ago, as low interest rates were encouraging investors to take more risks and businesses to borrow money and engage in financial engineering. At the time, I believed that the economic costs of a rate increase exceeded the financial stability benefits, but there were grounds for concern. That debate is now moot. With credit becoming more expensive, the outlook for the Chinese economy clouded at best, emerging markets submerging, the US stock market in a correction, widespread concerns about liquidity, and expected volatility having increased at a near-record rate, markets are themselves dampening any euphoria or overconfidence. The Fed does not have to do the job. At this moment of fragility, raising rates risks tipping some part of the financial system into crisis, with unpredictable and dangerous results.