Are You Sure that Rates are Going Higher?
What if everyone thought we were going to see higher mortgage rates, and we didn’t? Remember that this is exactly what happened 13 months ago when the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee raised overnight Fed Funds in December of 2016, after which long term rates dropped and stayed low for the next ten months. Can an argument be made for the same thing happening in 2017? Perhaps.
After the presidential election, the financial markets pretty much began assuming long-term rates, including mortgage rates, would be higher in 2017. Donald Trump’s potential agenda, which include big tax cuts, infrastructure spending, and broad hiring, certainly seems to point toward higher rates. And the Fed raised rates again last month.
Trump’s stated goals during his campaign imply that rates will be higher in a couple years, especially with the pressures from wage increases nudging inflation higher. Any stimulative fiscal policy from the Trump administration could face an equal and opposite tightening of monetary policy by a Fed that raises short-term rates two or three times this year. (Remember that monetary policy involves changing the interest rate and influencing the money supply. Fiscal policy involves the government changing tax rates and levels of government spending to influence aggregate demand in the economy.)
Among other actions the Fed conducts “the nation’s monetary policy by influencing money and credit conditions in the economy in pursuit of full employment and stable prices.” The U.S. central bank will seek to prevent too much inflation from breaking out in an economy it believes is getting close to operating at its full potential, which means Mr. Trump’s stimulus might run up against the Fed chair Janet Yellen’s (and perhaps her successor’s) counter-stimulus. There are two vacancies on the Fed’s seven-member board of governors already, and Ms. Yellen’s term as chairwoman expires in February 2018, so Donald Trump will have an impact on the makeup of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee.
The “smartest guys in the room” might be wrong with their forecasts, and that the era of low rates might stick around a bit longer. First, the Trump agenda might pack less of a growth punch than some have imagined. If so, you would expect the same cautious approach to rate increases from the Fed. The day after the election stocks rallied and bonds sold off/rates went up. Trump’s major tax cuts would tend to create a short-term boost in economic growth and higher interest rates. But there are some early signals that the Republican lawmakers who actually have to pass any changes to tax law, especially those in the Senate, are wary of tax cuts that would increase the budget deficit as much as Mr. Trump’s campaign plan would.
Regarding infrastructure spending, Trump has been short on details, and the details matter a great deal for how much an infrastructure plan could lift growth. For example, tax credits that make the finances of building toll roads more favorable are less likely to create a huge boost in activity than spending on upgrading physical infrastructure outright. So on both tax cuts and infrastructure, there’s no guarantee that the actual scale of stimulus will match some of the early postelection talk.
Second, even if the economy does start growing faster, future Trump administration appointees could change their tune on the desirability of higher interest rates. Politicians, once in office, tend to learn that they like low interest rates, and there is starting to be chatter that some in the Trump administration will push for cheaper money and the Fed attempting to hold the line to prevent inflation.
There is always the risk that some elements of Trump economic policy could end up being a drag on growth, like a trade war with China or Mexico, immigration restrictions that limit the supply of labor, or geopolitical disputes.
For the past few administrations presidents have stayed away from weighing in on monetary policy and let the Fed act independently. Mr. Trump has described himself as a “low interest rate person” but attacked Ms. Yellen by name during the campaign.
Looking ahead, even if the Fed kept its short-term interest rate targets low despite rising inflation, long-term interest rates, which are determined by the supply and demand of the bond market, would probably rise. Mr. Trump doesn’t feel bound by the traditions that have governed how recent presidents have acted. So, the future of United States interest rate policy is uncertain – like everything else in the future – but no one should be sure that long term rates are destined to move dramatically higher if at all.