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Fed not likely to raise rates

Recently, there has been some loud talk about inflation and how the U. S. Federal Reserve is going to have to start raising interest rates soon in order to nip inflation in the bud.

When first confronted with this news, you may have said, “Hogwash! No way in this economic backdrop could the Fed raise rates, slow down growth and risk sending us into a steep ‘double-dip’ recession.”

That certainly would be my view. It’s unclear at this point even if we are coming out of recession, so it really would be premature to slow things down at this point before any growth traction has been achieved.

However, let’s not just make assumptions. Let’s delve into history to see what the Fed has done in prior cycles.

The last U. S. recession was from March, 2001, to November, 2001, a period of eight months. The Fed funds rate was 6.5% from June, 2000, to January, 2001. In January of that year, the Fed lowered the rate to 6%, then went on a 12-month lowering frenzy during the recession and in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. By year-end 2001 the Fed funds rate was 1.75%, with the Fed still maintaining an easing bias.

Despite the official ending of the recession in November, 2001, the Fed maintained very low interest rates for almost three more years. In fact, it kept lowering rates, down to 1% from June, 2003 to May, 2004. This strategy of keeping rates low despite no recession is now widely blamed as the reason for the creation of the housing bubble that popped in 2007. The Fed finally raised rates in June, 2004, a full 30 months after the recession had ended.

In the recession of July, 1990 to March, 1991 (eight months) the Fed had been easing or maintained a neutral bias since February, 1989. At the start of that recession, the Fed funds rate was 8.25%. By the end of the recession, it was down to 6%. Again, despite the recession being over, the Fed kept jamming rates lower, all the way down to 3% in December, 1993. The Fed didn’t raise rates again until February, 1994. In that recession, again the Fed kept lowering rates for 30 months after the end of the recession.

Going back further into history, in the recession of July, 1981 to November, 1982 (16 months) the Fed acted a little more quickly. In May, 1981 the Fed rate was 20.0%. By December of that year, the Fed had moved rates down to 12%. In the spring of 1982, though, rates were back to 15%. But, showing signs of confusion, by the end of the summer 1982, rates were much lower, at 9.5%. The Fed was tightening rates again by September, 1982, and for a period of time investors had no idea what to expect, as the Fed moved rates up or down seemingly at random for a period of 18 months.

In the energy crisis of the early 1970s, the recession lasted from November, 1973, to March, 1975 (16 months). In November, at the start of the recession the Fed funds rate was 9.00% but by May, 1974, because of inflation fears the Fed had already raised the rate to 13%. Recession fears, however, ultimately ruled the day, and by year-end 1975 the Fed rate had been cut in half, to 4.75%. The tightening began anew, however, in April, 1976, 13 months after the official end of the recession.

What can we conclude? One, it seems sometimes that the Fed is just winging it, moving rates at random in response to short-term events. But it does seem the Fed is unwilling to raise rates too quickly after any recession.

Based on the severity of this economic downturn, you would have to conclude the Fed is unlikely to risk a double-dip recession, and will keep the Fed funds rate very low (now 0% to 0.25%) for a long time.

This may, of course, cause inflation, but for the time being, that is still better than a giant de-leveraging economic death-spiral.

Source: Peter Hodson, Financial Post 








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