The Federal Open Market Committee began its two day September meeting yesterday, where it will consider raising the short-term policy rate, or the guidance on that rate. It has been nine years since the committee has raised this rate. The prospect of higher rates has financial markets and their commentators very nervous. The rate-raising event, even though it has not happened yet, even has a name, “Liftoff”.
Liftoff has market watchers glued to their monitors for a number of important economic reasons. Because the rate is related to other longer-term interest rates through the Term Structure, and the longer-term rates are used to discount cash flows, this affects net present value (NPV) calculations, making more investment projects appear profitable. Aside from new projects, lower corporate bond rates bring down a firm’s borrowing costs, raising their net income.
The argument for low rates in late 2008/early 2009 was a good one. We had faced a serious financial crises and were in the middle of a serious recession, one that appeared at the time to be the second greatest economic contraction since 1929. Many financial entities faced a liquidity crunch, where short-term credit had vanished. Firms shelved positive NPV projects. Households were upside down on their homes. Because the housing market was so decimated the lower mortgage rates were thought to be needed to help resurrect home sales activity and promote refinancing which in some cases could help a household remain as a homeowner.
The Fed’s dual mandate of price stability and economic growth, argue in a conventional way against raising rates at this time. Historically, rates were raised as a way to cool down an economy with rising inflation or dropped as a way to spur economic growth. However, inflation and economic growth continue remain low compared with postwar U.S. history.
Despite this, I think the Fed should immediately begin the process of raising rates toward historically normal levels. The abnormally low interest rates were probably justified by the double feature of a financial crises and a large economic contraction back in late 2008/early 2009, but they do not have that justification now. The canonical Taylor rule formula as published by FRED at the St. Louis District Federal Reserve bank calls for a Federal Funds Target rate of 2.44 percent.
It is safe to say that financial markets, consumption activity, and savings and investment decisions are being distorted by the low interest rates. As one example, household balance sheet rebuilding was and still is important for the long-term economic health of the U.S. A higher return to savings would aid and incentivize this activity.
The economy should be able to grow with interest rates at normal levels. If it cannot, then it needs to relearn this ability. If this process ends up taking some time, we should begin it sooner rather than later. An imminent financial crisis does not seem to be a high probability event at this time. However, if one did happen now, being at the zero lower bound would be an inconvenient reality indeed.