The Fed cuts interest rates for the first time since 2008 – but it’s still not enough

The Federal Reserve has cut US interest rates for the first time in over a decade. It’s fair to say that the market didn’t like it. John Stepek explains why.

US Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell © Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Fed chairman Jerome Powell needs lessons in managing expectations
(Image credit: US Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell © Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Yesterday, the Federal Reserve, America's central bank, cut interest rates by 0.25%. This was the first such cut since 2008.

That sounds pretty scary. And it's fair to say that the market didn't like it.

But not because investors are now worried about recession. It's because the Fed sounded far too upbeat about the economy even as it made the cut.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

How the Fed accidentally tightened monetary conditions

Stockmarkets normally like it when the Federal Reserve cuts interest rates. That wasn't the case yesterday.

Why not? Because even though the economy really isn't that bad (full employment, mild inflation and solid if not outstanding growth are not generally viewed as "bad things", economically-speaking), the Fed was expected to cut a lot more aggressively.

Markets have worked themselves into such a lather that anything less than a half-point cut was bound to disappoint. And Fed chairman Jerome Powell also needs lessons from Mario Draghi in managing expectations.

Powell described the cut as a "mid-cycle adjustment", and noted that it was "not the beginning of a long series of rate cuts". Markets didn't like that, because they had been betting on rates being pretty much a full percentage point lower by this time next year.

In effect, by cutting less than markets expected, Powell in fact tightened monetary policy. Markets now expect fewer rate cuts. As a result, the US dollar strengthened. The yield curve deteriorated (investors are betting on a recession, or at least a close-run thing). And stocks fell.

Is this what Powell intended? I suspect not.

As Helen Thomas of Blonde Money points out, the problem here is that the Fed is cutting rates for no obvious reason, and so its communication is lagging behind its intent. In other words, they haven't yet got their excuses straight.

That, she reckons, will be rectified in the next few days by one or other of the more dovish "brains" behind the Fed chair coming out and soothing markets that this isn't just "one and done" (as Powell himself rushed to reiterate).

It's also worth noting that quantitative tightening (QT the process by which the Fed reverses quantitative easing) was stopped altogether yesterday. It has been scheduled to continue for another two months. This appears not to have been widely commented on, but it's certainly not hawkish.

The biggest worry here, as always, is the US dollar. It's currently rather strong, and that's not what Donald Trump wants. It's hard to win a trade war when your efforts to drive up prices of imports by imposing tariffs are being rendered irrelevant by the sliding value of the currency in which those imports are priced.

Moreover, an expensive dollar makes life harder for S&P 500 companies. A significant chunk of their earnings are made overseas. An earnings squeeze wouldn't bode well for an arguably overvalued stockmarket.

The risk is that the Fed takes so long to get its excuses in line that the European Central Bank manages to overtake it in the currency-trashing, recession fear, and loose monetary policy stakes. But we'll just have to wait and see.

Meantime, stick to your investment plan. It's useful to be on top of all of this central bank stuff as it's one of the main man-made factors that pushes the markets around. Knowing what's happening can help you to avoid panic.

But on a day-to-day basis, what matters most is having a plan in the first place, understanding roughly what you need to save to achieve your goals and then actually saving that amount every month (or quarter), and then controlling your cost of investment so that your hard-earned cash doesn't mostly line the industry's pockets.

As with most of the important things you need for a good life, it's simple, but not easy.

A quick reminder book your ticket now before the prices go up

We'll also be discussing how to cope with all this monetary madness at the MoneyWeek Wealth Summit in London on 22 November.

Indeed, we'll be talking about all of the big issues of the day and how they could affect your investments from the impact of whatever type of Brexit we may or may not have achieved by that point; to the chances of a hard-left government taking power in the UK or the US; to the likely direction of monetary policy, as we head into apparently uncharted territory.

Our speakers include Russell Napier, the hugely-respected author of a bona fide financial classic, Anatomy of the Bear (which you can buy here). He's a renowned investment analyst and economic historian. His perspective is invaluable when it comes to looking at unexpected events that could upturn the apple cart.

We've also got British entrepreneur and investor Jim Mellon, who'll be talking about the hugely exciting investment area that he's currently spending most of his time investigating and backing. It could be transformational for all of us and not just in terms of wealth indeed, that could be the least of it.

It promises to be a great day, with some of the most stimulating conversation and investment ideas you'll hear anywhere this year. Merryn and I would both like to see you there, so book your place now to make sure you don't miss it.

And if you need another reason to act right now, then here you go you can still get the tickets at a knock-down price. But the early bird discount ends at midnight on Monday 5 August. After that, prices go up. So don't leave it until the last minute book your ticket today!

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.