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The tug of war between the Federal Reserve and the markets

The US Federal Reserve raised interest rates again yesterday. But the markets seem to be concerned that things are moving too fast. John Stepek looks at what’s got them worried.

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Fed chair Janet Yellen: getting enthusiastic about the idea of raising rates

2017 Getty Images

The US Federal Reserve raised interest rates again yesterday.

US rates fell to near-0% back in 2008. At the time, it was seen as an emergency measure.

Now, not far off a decade later, the Fed's key rate has just crept back above 1%.

And what's the market's biggest worry?

That the Fed is moving too fast

How the US central bank plans to unwind its balance sheet

The next big question is unwinding quantitative easing (QE), and the Fed gave us more details on that too. Here's the plan.

The first thing to understand about QE is that in some ways, it hasn't ended, not even in the US. The Fed printed money to buy lots of US Treasuries (government IOUs it bought some other stuff too, but let's stick with that to keep things simple).

In doing so, the Fed expanded its balance sheet, and pushed a load of new money into the economy. It also drove down long-term interest rates by providing a huge source of demand for US Treasuries, with the Fed competing with other potential Treasury owners.

However, those bonds have a shelf life they're IOUs, so at some point the government repays them. The government still needs to borrow that money (the US is running a deficit, just like us), so it just replaces this debt by issuing more debt. This is called rolling over' the debt.

At the moment, as soon as one bond matures (ie the government repays the debt), the Fed just takes the money and uses it to buy another Treasury. So the Fed's balance sheet remains the same size, and the US government has a guaranteed customer (itself, effectively), for its debt.

The next step is for the Fed to shrink its balance sheet. It won't do anything as radical as selling the bonds it owns. It just won't reinvest the money from the maturing bonds.

The plan is to do this at a rate of $10bn a month. This "run-off rate" will rise gradually (by $10bn every three months), until it hits $50bn a month. That's a very slow and steady pace. As Paul Ashworth of Capital Economics points out, "the Fed added assets at $85bn per month during QE3 and currently holds more than $4trn of assets".

The Fed seems to expect that it will start this process at some point this year. Meanwhile, it also expects to raise interest rates once more this year, and three times next year.

No sudden moves and nothing too radical there. What could possibly go wrong?

Is the Fed moving too quickly?

Here's what's concerning them. In the UK, the Bank of England has been very successful at missing its inflation target, helped by a weak currency. Consumer price inflation is sitting at 2.9% (versus a target of 2%). The fact that price inflation is outstripping wage inflation isn't so great. But the UK currently is not flirting with deflation.

In the US, inflation has been much less co-operative. In February, US inflation was up 2.1% on the year. In March it slipped to 1.9%. In April, it was down to 1.7%.

This is all happening despite US unemployment being extremely low. You'd think that with lots of people in work that wages would be going up at a decent pace. So far, that's not happening.

What markets really want to see is a "dovish" rate-hiking cycle, as Bloomberg puts it. This is when "real" interest rates (ie interest rates adjusted for inflation) keep falling, even although nominal interest rates rise. In other words, inflation rises faster than rates do.

That means monetary policy is really still loose, and it also means that debt is still being gradually inflated away. That's what the market wants to see, and right now it's not getting it.

Markets are worried that, instead, the US economy is going to go pear-shaped, particularly now that Donald Trump has proved incapable of getting any sort of deal done on anything. The fear is that Fed chair Janet Yellen is just getting enthusiastic about the idea of raising rates when the economy is about to have another slump.

So why was the market reaction relatively sanguine yesterday? Simply put, the markets don't yet believe Yellen. Market expectations for where future interest rates will be are well below where the Fed currently reckons they'll be.

Who'll win? It all depends on what happens to inflation data and growth prospects over the coming months. To my mind, the danger is that with the post-election euphoria all gone, and no more stimulus from the Fed, an expensive market may lose the will to keep rising.

But I'll keep an open mind. Pay close attention to what happens to the dollar. It's still one of the most important prices in the world as far as broader financial conditions go. If it starts going back up, be ready for turbulence.

(By the way, we look in a lot more detail at what we view as some of the most important financial and market indicators in the MoneyWeek Unlimited email every Friday. It's available to MoneyWeek subscribers only if you're not already a subscriber, sign up here).

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