Rest of the world paved the way for a March US Fed rate hike

US data has been good enough to allow the Federal Reserve to hike rates and global risks haven’t soured the outlook


Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. Photo: AFP
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. Photo: AFP

Washington: In just a week, markets went from doubting a March rate increase to viewing one as a sure bet. The central bank’s top brass engineered the change by speaking in favour of a hike, culminating in Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen’s endorsement on Friday.

What changed to push central bank policy makers from the neutral stance that Fed-watchers saw in their January meeting minutes to the brink of a rate increase? Not much, if you’re looking at US data. The fact that nothing deteriorated was enough to clear the hurdle for a March rate move, especially because steady domestic data have come alongside a slowly-improving international outlook—a major shift from the situation at this time last year, when global risks helped to stay the Fed’s hand.

US data: good enough

“There is almost no economic indicator that has come in badly in the last three months,” Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer said Friday at a forum hosted by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Likewise, Yellen said employment and inflation are evolving in line with the Federal Open Market Committee’s expectations. As you can see below, while prices haven’t broken out dramatically to the upside, they’re still moving toward the Fed’s goals.

Unemployment has “essentially met” what officials see as full employment, Yellen said Friday. Low joblessness isn’t a major change from last year, though wages are very slowly crawling higher, suggesting that the labour market is getting tighter.

And the outlook for output growth hasn’t changed much. New York Fed president William Dudley said the economy is still on about a 2% growth track, speaking in a CNN interview on 28 February. He then signalled a willingness to raise rates soon.

In short, the US economy isn’t experiencing a breakout moment, but it’s holding up. Evidently, that’s all the Fed needed to see.

Risks abroad: “receded somewhat”

The global outlook has shifted, if you listen to Yellen and governor Lael Brainard. In 2016, the Fed entered the year looking to raise rates, but tumult in Chinese markets and Britain’s vote to exit the European Union helped to keep them on hold until December. This year, “the prospects for further moderate economic growth look encouraging, particularly as risks emanating from abroad appear to have receded somewhat,” Yellen said Friday. “Foreign growth is on more solid footing and risks to the outlook are as close to balanced as they have been in some time,” Brainard said 1 March.

Yellen said China “has continued to grow and its management of its currency has been better understood and led to less volatility,’’ while Brainard said government officials there had “stabilized growth and calmed fears of financial instability.” In the chart below, you can see as the economic environment stabilizes, China’s manufacturing sector is posting gradually better results.

Yellen noted that Brexit negotiations and concerns about European integration could continue to pose a risk, but Brainard said Europe’s “recovery has proven to be increasingly resilient.’’ Euro area headline inflation has been climbing, providing fresh arguments to those calling for an exit from the European Central Bank’s monetary stimulus program, though core inflation remains below 1%. Euro-area unemployment was unchanged at 9.6% in January, the lowest since May 2009.

At the end of the day, it wasn’t an outsize improvement in data at home that dealt the Fed a winning hand in early 2017: growth remains in a holding pattern, progress in headline inflation is energy-tied, and the job market is growing at a similar clip to last year. And while domestic fiscal policy seems increasingly likely to turn stimulative as President Donald Trump promises tax cuts and infrastructure spending, Yellen and her colleagues say it’s too early to take that into account when setting policy.

What has changed significantly is that threats from abroad are looking less scary. As long as that remains the case and US data remain steady between now and 15 March, the Fed appears poised for its first non-December rate increase since June 2006. Bloomberg

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