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Trying to Teach Old Dogs New Tricks

September 26th, 2016 | William Spriggs

Last December, after a long period of keeping the Fed funds rate near zero, the FOMC voted unanimouslyto raise the Fed funds rate by one-quarter to one-half points. It was anticipated that would be the first in a series of increases of similar small amounts. But, over the course of this year, the economy has run rather flat. Employment in the areas sensitive to interest rates like construction and manufacturing, after employment gains during 2015, ran flat. Durable goods manufacturing, which had been declining during 2015, continued to fall. In 2015, the unemployment rate fell from 5.7% in January to 5.0% in October. It has since remained stuck at about that level.

Ideally, when the Federal Reserve gets things right, the economy runs neither too hot or too cold. Eight months of flat unemployment rates and tepid GDP growth would suggest the Fed has clearly succeeded in finding a landing that, so far hasn’t meant crashing the economy. At least, on Wednesday, the evidence from modest GDP growth, flat unemployment and very low inflation convinced the six Board of Governors and the president of the New York Federal Reserve Regional Bank to hold steady; a tribute to Janet Yellen’s leadership to stay focused on the data and the real economy.

But, the other three regional bank presidents, Esther George of Kansas City, Loretta Mester of Cleveland and Eric Rosengren of Boston, all voted to raise the rate now. Another point of context is understanding the global economy is growing slower. The other major world economies, Europe, Japan and China, are struggling with slow growth. Their central banks are operating with either zero or negative interest rates. America’s modest growth looks very good next to their anemic performance. So this is making the dollar very strong. And that helps to explain the weakness of U.S. manufacturing because a strong dollar hurts U.S. exports. So even modest increases in U.S. interest rates are big by global standards and could further disadvantage U.S. manufacturing.

A second context is that the excess level of savings, globally, is chasing down projections of interest rate levels. Currently, the consensus at the Fed is that in the midterm, the Fed funds rate is likely to be around 1.9% at the end of 2018, and in the long run the normal rate is expected to be about 2.9%. On the eve of the Great Recession, the Fed funds rate was 5.25%. Compared to 2.9%, a raise to between one-half and three-quarters is not small. It isn’t like when the “normal” rate was above 5%.

The current tension in the FOMC between the Board of Governors and the regional bank presidents continues the controversy whether banks have too much say. Independence of the Fed from the political process is important. But, so too is Fed independence from the banks they need to regulate and oversee to make sure we have economic stability. The vote from Wall Street was positive. The stock market gains show a consensus the Fed is doing it right.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on September 23, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

William E. Spriggs serves as Chief Economist to the AFL-CIO, and is a professor in, and former Chair of, the Department of Economics at Howard University. Follow Spriggs on Twitter: @WSpriggs.

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