For years after the Great Recession ended, investors fretted – sometimes panicked – over the prospect that the Federal Reserve might begin to raise interest rates from record lows.
Now? The Fed seems all but sure to raise rates Wednesday for the third time in 15 months and to signal more hikes probably coming. And the response from investors has been something akin to a yawn.
Wall Street appears to be too busy extending the stock market rally that began with President Trump’s election in November, cheered by the prospect of tax cuts, an easing of regulations and higher spending for infrastructure, to be worrying about a rate hike.
Fed watchers, it seems, are more buoyed by expectations for a vigorous economy than worried about whether slightly higher rates might slow growth.
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When Chair Janet Yellen and several other Fed officials separately suggested earlier this month that the economy was sturdy enough to withstand a modest raising of loan rates, investors quickly raised their estimate of the probability of a rate hike at the Fed’s meeting this week from around 20 percent to 80 percent.
I think a March rate hike is a fait accompli. The more important question is: How many more hikes they will give us for the balance of the year?
Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University, Channel Islands, who expects four rate increases in 2017.
After Friday’s robust February jobs report – 235,000 added jobs, solid pay gains and a dip in the unemployment rate to 4.7 percent – the likelihood has grown to 91 percent, according to the CME Group, which tracks investor expectations of Fed actions.
Yet no one seems very concerned.
“We’re just at a different place now than in 2013 when there was a lot of angst and uncertainty about the economy’s prospects,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “Now the fundamentals of the economy are much better. We are close to full employment and investors feel more comfortable about where we are.”
In light of Friday’s jobs report, optimism about Trump’s economic program and other signs that growth may pick up, some economists said they were raising their forecast for the number of rate increases this year from three to perhaps four.
91 percentThe probability of a rate hike on Wednesday, according to the CME Group, which tracks investor expectations of Fed actions.
“I think a March rate hike is a fait accompli,” said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University, Channel Islands, who expects four rate increases in 2017. “The more important question is: How many more hikes they will give us for the balance of the year?”
If the Fed is no longer unsettling investors with the hint of a forthcoming rate increase, it marks quite a change from the anxiety that prevailed after 2008, when the central bank cut its key rate to a record low and kept it there for seven years. During those years, any slight shift in sentiment about when the Fed might begin raising rates – a step that would lead eventually to higher loan rates for consumers and businesses – was enough to move global markets.
Many analysts say they’re optimistic that Trump’s proposed tax cuts, infrastructure spending increases and deregulation may accelerate growth.
In 2013, then-Chairman Ben Bernanke sent markets into a panic merely by mentioning that the Fed was contemplating slowing the pace of its bond purchases, which it was using then to keep long-term borrowing rates low.
But now, the economy is widely considered sturdy enough to handle modestly higher loan rates. The unemployment rate, at 4.7 percent, is below the 4.8 percent level the Fed has deemed an indication of full employment. And inflation, which had stayed undesirably low for years, is edging near the 2 percent annual rate that the Fed views as optimal.
And while the broadest gauge of the economy’s health – the gross domestic product – remains well below levels associated with a healthy economy, many analysts say they’re optimistic that Trump’s proposed tax cuts, infrastructure spending increases and deregulation may accelerate growth. Those proposals have lifted the confidence of business executives and offset concerns that investors might otherwise have had about the effects of Fed rate increases.