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US rates: the dilemma

Interest rates are the main tool of monetary policy and have a history of being an effective tool in creating macroeconomic stability. There has been much discussion since the end of the financial crisis concerning when interest rates would rise in the US (and the UK) and for the US, the case is stronger, given its rate of growth, which has averaged at 2.2% per annum since June 2009.

As in the UK, the question of ‘will rates rise?’ has a clear and certain answer: Yes. The more challenging question is ‘when?’. Much of the macroeconomic data for the US is promising, with positive economic growth (and relatively strong in comparison to the UK and Eurozone), a low unemployment rate and inflation of 0.3%. This last figure is ‘too low’, but it comes in at a much more attractive 1.2% if you exclude food and energy costs and there is an argument for doing this, given the price of oil. The data on unemployment and growth might suggest that the economy is at a stage where a rate rise could be managed, but the inflation data indicates that low interest rates might be needed to keep inflation above 0%. Furthermore, there are concerns that the low unemployment figure is somewhat misleading, given that under-employment is quite high at 10.3% and there are still many who are long-term unemployed, having been out of work for more than 6 months.

Interest rates can be a powerful tool in affecting the components of aggregate demand (AD) and hence the macroeconomic variables. If interest rates fall, it can help to stimulate AD by reducing borrowing costs for consumers and businesses, reducing the incentive to save, cutting variable rate mortgage payments and depreciating the exchange rate. Collectively these effects can stimulate an economy and hence create economic growth, reduce unemployment and push up prices. However, interest rates have been at almost 0% since the financial crisis, so the only way is up. Reversing the aforementioned effects could then spell trouble, if the economy is not in a sufficiently strong position.

For many, the strength of the US economy, while relatively good, is not yet good enough to justify a rate rise. It may harm investment, growth and unemployment and none of these variables are sufficiently high to warrant a rate rise, especially given the slowdown in the emerging markets. Karishma Vaswani, from BBC News said:

“The current global hand-wringing and head-holding over whether the US Fed will or won’t raise interest rates later has got investors here in Asia worried about what this means for their economies.
The Fed has become the favourite whipping boy of Asia’s central bankers, with cries from India to Indonesia to “just get on with it”.”

There are many, including Professor John Taylor from Stanford University and a former senior Treasury official, a rate rise is well over-due. The market is expecting one and has been for some time and these expectations aren’t going away, so ‘just get on with it.’ Janet Yellen, the Chair of the Federal Reserve is in a tricky situation. She knows that whatever is decided, markets around the world will react – no pressure then! The following articles consider the interest rate debate.

Articles
FTSE slides ahead of Fed interest rates decision The Telegraph, Tara Cunningham (17/9/15)
US’s interest rate rise dilemma BBC News, Andrew Walker (17/9/15)
US interest rate rise: how it could affect your savings and your mortgage Independent (17/9/15)
All eyes on Federal Reserve as it prepares for interest rate announcement The Guardian, Rupert Neate (16/9/15)
Federal Reserve meeting: Will US interest rates rise and should they? The Telegraph, Peter Spence (16/9/15)
Markets push US rate rise bets into 2016 as China woes keep Fed on hold: as it happened The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (17/9/15)
Federal Reserve puts rate rise on hold The Guardian (17/9/15)
US central bank leave interest rates unchanged BBC News (17/5/15)
Fed leaves interest rates unchanged Wall Street Journal, Jon Hilsenrath (17/9/15)
Asian markets mostly rally, US Futures waver ahead of Fed interest rate decision International Business Times, Aditya Tejas (17/9/15)

Data
Selected US interest rates Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (see, for example, Federal Funds Effective rate (monthly))

Questions

  1. What happened to US interest rates in September?
  2. Present the main arguments for keeping interest rates on hold.
  3. What were the arguments in favour of raising interest rates and do they differ depending on whether interest rates rise slowly or very rapidly?
  4. How did stock markets around the world react to Janet Yellen’s announcement? Is it good news for the UK?
  5. Using a diagram to support your explanation, outline why interest rates are such a powerful tool of monetary policy and how they affect the main macroeconomic objectives.
  6. Do you think other central banks will take note of the Fed’s decision, when they make their interest rate decisions in the coming months? Explain your answer.
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