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June, 201811:29 PM



US interest rates lift for a seventh time

US interest rates lift for a seventh time

As widely expected, the Fed increased the target range for the federal funds rate by 0.25 per cent to 1.75-2.00 per cent.

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14.06.2018 04:48 PM

US interest rates lift for a seventh time
Financial events

US Federal Reserve decision: As widely expected, the Fed increased the target range for the federal funds rate by 0.25 per cent to 1.75-2.00 per cent. This was the seventh increase in interest rates of the current monetary policy tightening cycle. The decision by the Fed voters was a unanimous 8-0.

US interest rate outlook: The Fed is now forecasting two further rate increases in 2018 (four in total, up from three previously) and three further hikes in 2019. The 2020 projection is for at least one rate hike.

US economic outlook revised higher: Economic growth (GDP) forecasts were increased to 2.8 per cent in 2018, up from the previous forecast of 2.7 per cent. The 2019 forecast was unchanged at 2.4 per cent. Growth is projected to decelerate to 2.0 per cent by 2020 and to 1.8 per cent over the longer run.

US at full employment: The unemployment rate is expected to fall to 3.6 per cent in 2018, down from 3.8 per cent in 2018. The unemployment rate is expected to fall further to 3.5 per cent in 2019-2020.

Inflation to reach target in 2018: Inflation is expected to reach the Fed's “symmetric” 2.0 per cent target this year (previously 1.9 per cent). The Fed expects the core Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) deflator (inflation) to increase to 2.1 per cent in 2019 and stay there through to 2020. 

What happened?

The US economy and labour market are firing on all cylinders. The US central bank, the US Federal Reserve, increased the target range for the federal funds rate by 0.25 percentage points to 1.75-2.00 per cent, as expected. Interest rate have increased seven times since December 2015.

More interest rate increases are forecast this year and next. Policymakers upgraded their projected number of rate hikes to four this year as unemployment falls further below “full employment” and inflation overshoots its “symmetric” two per cent target.

Inflation is gradually increasing after the economy’s seasonal ‘soft patch’ in the March quarter. Annual growth of the consumer price index stands at 2.8 per cent in April, the highest rate since February 2012. A sharp rebound in economic growth to around 3-3.5 per cent is expected during the June quarter on the back of a pick-up in consumer spending.

And core consumer prices (excludes food and energy) are already at 2.2 per cent per annum in April. Only the US Federal Reserve’s preferred core personal consumer expenditure deflator (PCE) measure remains below target at 1.8 per cent in April, but that’s expected to breach the two per cent target by year-end.

The jobs bonanza in the US continues. A record 92 consecutive months of job gains has pushed the unemployment rate down to 3.8 per cent in May - the lowest level since April 2000.

If the current pace of job creation continues, the unemployment rate could potentially fall to 3.5 per cent for the first time since 1969 by year-end. The unemployment rate is well below the US Federal Reserve’s estimate of the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (“NAIRU”) which is currently at 4.5 per cent.

And in a further sign that the US is at or close to “full employment”, job openings (JOLTS series) by a record 4.3 per cent in April – job vacancies are now exceeding the number of unemployed workers by a gap of 352,000. In the 12 months through April, the US economy created a whopping net 2.4 million jobs according to Bloomberg.

US wages growth has been lacklustre due to structural, technological and demographic changes. However, given reduced spare capacity in the labour market, a gradual increase in wages growth is expected. The annual growth rate for average hourly earnings reached 8-year highs of 2.8 per cent in February, but has since fallen to 2.7 per cent in May. That said, another measure of pay and benefits – the employment cost index for private sector wages increased by 2.9 per cent – the largest annual increase in 11 years. And the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) has recently reported that a net 35 per cent of businesses are increasing worker compensation – the highest since records began 32 years ago.

While there are multiple risks to the US economic outlook – increasing inflation, rising budget deficit, record-high government debt, global political turbulence and growing ‘trade war’ concerns – the economy appears set to grow by around 3 per cent this year on the back of stimulus from the Trump Administration’s US$1.5 trillion corporate tax cuts. Should the US expand for another year, it will exceed the 10-year economic boom of the 1990s – the last time US interest rates were higher than their Aussie counterparts. 

US Federal Reserve decision

Today’s decision by the US Federal Reserve was well telegraphed and uniformly expected by financial markets. The addition of another projected rate hike in the second half of this year has nudged-up the interest rate tightening trajectory.

In its press release the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) reiterated that the pace of economic growth should pick-up, unaffected by a slightly more aggressive pace of rate hikes: “The committee expects that further gradual increases in the target range for the federal funds rate will be consistent with sustained expansion of economic activity, strong labour market conditions, and inflation near the committee’s symmetric 2 percent objective over the medium term”.

The statement removed previous language saying that the main rate would remain “for some time” below longerrun levels. Other changes included a reference of “further gradual increases” instead of “adjustments”. Policymakers also said that “indicators of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed”. Previously, the statement made separate references to survey-based and market-based measures of these expectations.

The median path for the fed funds rate was changed in 2018 to include an addition fourth rate hike and one less rate hike in 2020. The FOMC’s Summary of Economic Projections shows the median interest rate projections (the “dot plot”) implies two further 0.25 per cent interest rate increases in the second half of 2018 (to 2.4 per cent, up from 2.1 per cent previously); three 0.25 per cent interest rate increases in 2019 (to 3.1 per cent, up from 2.9 per cent previously); and one 0.25 per cent interest rate increase in 2020 (to 3.4 per cent).

The policy-relevant core PCE deflator inflation projections were little changed. Core PCE inflation is expected to lift to 2.0 per cent in 2018, up from 1.9 per cent previously forecast. Projections in 2019 and 2020 were unchanged at 2.1 per cent.

The FOMC upgraded its GDP forecasts and lowered its unemployment rate projections. The FOMC projects GDP growth of 2.8 per cent in 2018 (previously 2.7 per cent) and 2.4 per cent in 2019 and 2.0 per cent in 2020 (both unchanged). Meanwhile, the FOMC expects the unemployment rate to be 3.6 per cent in 2018 (previously 3.8 per cent) and 3.5 per cent in both 2019 (previously 3.6 per cent) and 2020 (previously 3.6 per cent).

The Fed is targeting a range for the Fed Funds rate and uses the interest on excess reserves rate (IOER) as one of its main tools. With the rate creeping towards the high end of its target range recently, the Fed hiked the IOER rate by 0.20 per cent to 1.95 per cent as “it is intended to foster trading in the federal funds market at rates well within the FOMC’s target range”.

The Fed continues to unwind its huge balance sheet. Holdings have declined to around US$4.3 trillion, the lowest since May 2014. A total of US$88 billion worth of US Treasuries have now been “rolled-off” at maturity. Eventually, holdings will be reduced by around US$50 billion per month until a “new normal” balance sheet holding is achieved.

US sharemarkets finished lower on the slightly “hawkish” tone of the FOMC’s policy statement. The Dow Jones fell by 120 points or 0.5 per cent with the S&P 500 index lower by 0.4 per cent, while the Nasdaq lost just 8.1 points or 0.1 per cent. US 2-year yields rose by 2 basis points to 2.57 per cent and 10-year yields rose by 1 point to 2.976 per cent. The US Treasury yield curve from 5 to 30 years flattened to levels last seen in August 2007. The US dollar retreated after spiking to session highs. The Aussie dollar did a round trip. The Aussie dollar traded between US75.30 cents and US76.05 cents and was near US75.70 cents in late US trade. Other major currencies fluctuated as investors absorbed the first of three big central bank reports this week.

What are the implications for interest rates and investors?

We expect US economic growth to re-accelerate in the June quarter to a growth rate of around 3 per cent per annum, before finishing the year at a pace of around 2.7 per cent. Financial conditions remain accommodative despite a tightening in recent months due to the stronger greenback, rising share market volatility and lifting term premium (the excess return that investors demand for holding a longer-dated bond).

The Trump Administration’s fiscal expansion will likely lend support to late cycle US economic growth. The ‘legup’ from US$1.5 trillion worth of corporate tax cuts and additional government spending of around US$300 billion is expected to add around 0.5 percentage points to growth in 2018. Robust business investment, strong capital spending plans and firm consumer spending should support continued growth.

One of the challenges for Fed policymakers is to determine the full impact of the Trump tax-cut plans. And with US output and the labour market at near full capacity, concerns are building about an overheating economy. Normally fiscal stimulus occurs when economic growth is lacklustre or at recessionary levels.

Former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said recently that he’s concerned that “in 2020 Wile E. Coyote is going to go off the cliff”, implying a possible US economic downturn after the fiscal stimulus fades and the economy overheats. Further, Mr Bernanke said that “the economy is already at full employment”.

The Fed will also be contending with a sharply deteriorating US budget deficit and government debt situation. According to the US Congressional Budget Office, the federal budget deficit ballooned to US$530 billion in the first eight months of fiscal year 2018 up by US$97 million over the same period last year. The deficit is expected to surpass US$1 trillion by 2020 if the current growth rate in government spending continues. The US gross government debt load has breached US$21 trillion or 106 per cent of GDP.

The Trump Administration’s fiscal expansion will be funded by an increase in the US budget deficit, resulting in an increase in the issuance of US Treasury bonds. Government debt sales are set to more than double in 2018, lifting net issuance to US$1.3 trillion, the most since 2010, and occurring at a time when the Fed is shrinking its bond holdings (“Quantitative Tightening”). And the Fed’s interest rate hikes will likely expand the budget deficit even further by raising the Trump Administration’s cost of issuance, thereby further increasing the supply of US Treasuries. Rising supply is already weighing on fixed income markets. The 10-year US Treasury yield curve recently rose to a 7-year high near 3.1 per cent.

If the Fed meets market pricing expectations for potential interest rate hikes, it will probably succeed in flattening the yield curve further – especially with the term premium curve flat already – then more likely we’ll see further episodic market volatility.

Australian investors and businesses won’t escape the increase in US borrowing costs. Rising US Treasury bond yields are dragging their Aussie counterparts higher despite the Reserve Bank’s neutral policy stance.

Global interest rates are lifting and so are bank funding costs, pressuring margins. Aussie banks derive around 40 per cent of their funding from overseas. Australian short term interest rates are already near the highest in two years with the 90 day bank bill yield at 2.06 per cent. And there is a risk of home lending standards being tightened, placing additional pressure on banks when it comes to the determination of mortgage rates.

The Aussie dollar has remained resilient in the face of growing US interest rate differentials. The improving domestic economic backdrop, lifting commodity prices, firm Chinese economic growth, narrowing current account deficit and pick-up in the terms of trade is lending support to the Aussie. The US’ deteriorating credit quality, including rising debt and deficit and concerns over a sovereign downgrade have the potential to weigh on the greenback.

CBA currency strategists expect the Aussie dollar to lift to US78 cents by the end of 2018 and to US80 cents by June 2019.

Published by Ryan Felsman, Senior Economist, CommSec
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