At its March 15 meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee did what many expected: raised the target federal funds rate to between 0.75% and 1%. The 25-basis-point increase was in line with market expectations and reflected “the economy’s continued progress toward the employment and price stability objectives,” according to Federal Reserve (Fed) Chair Janet Yellen. The central bankers last raised rates three months ago at their mid-December meeting.
It should be noted that senior Fed officials’ projections of growth, unemployment and inflation over the next few years didn’t change much from December. And, only a few Fed officials raised their expected year-end rate targets for 2017 and 2018. Future Fed policy actions will be data-dependent, with a focus on the job market and the inflation outlook. The domestic equity markets were expecting a more aggressive stance on raising rates, but equity investors seem to prefer the gradual move toward normalization of fiscal policy. The measured comments from the Fed helped extend recent gains for all three major stock indices.
The decision to raise short-term interest rates is not necessarily bad news for investors, Raymond James Chief Economist Scott Brown explains. It reflects an improved economic outlook. The latest employment report, for example, showed an uptick in construction and manufacturing jobs, a sign of strengthening business investment. Even with the rate increase, monetary policy remains accommodative. Consumer and business borrowing costs may rise moderately, but the economy is expected to strengthen further over the course of 2017.
The Fed may be on a collision course with policies coming out of Washington, notes Brown. Reduced regulation, a possible infrastructure spending package, and tax cuts should provide some lift for economic growth. In contrast, the Fed sees an economy near full employment. Labor market constraints would keep overall growth at a moderate pace. Of course, as Yellen has noted, the timing, size and character of Washington’s policy changes remain uncertain.
The rate increase was only the third since 2006. Any immediate effects will likely be modest, as they were in December. Banks tend to raise interest rates on loans before raising rates on deposits, so borrowers should see a change first, while savers may have to wait a little longer to see their interest rates rise. Bond investors also may want to take a wait-and-see approach. While bond prices do have an inverse relationship with rate increases, the reality is much more nuanced and interest rates don’t move in lockstep with Fed policy.