Central Banks set short term interest rates and can influence longer term rates but the market is in control of the latter and determines financial conditions in general. At times, financial conditions can move in the opposite direction to the stance of monetary policy, and we have a good example of that playing out now in the US.
The Federal Reserve has tightened policy and has signalled this process will continue; the Fed Funds rate target is currently 1% higher than it was eighteen months ago, following four rate increases, and the FOMC expects conditions to evolve that will ‘ warrant gradual increases‘ over time. Furthermore, the Fed’s Balance sheet will start to shrink ‘relatively soon’, as the Central Bank stops reinvesting some of the bonds purchased under QE. Yet the market is currently giving a 60% probability to rates being unchanged by year end, and broader financial conditions are now looser than they were when the Fed started to tighten.
Indeed, financial conditions in the US have rarely been easier, according to The Chicago Fed’s Financial Conditions Index. This uses over 100 financial variables (including the exchange rate, equity market volatility, credit spreads and the yield curve) to derive a weekly snapshot of risk, liquidity and leverage in the US. It is clear that the Fed is therefore at odds with the market; the former believes it is time to tighen policy, albeit gradually, while the latter acts as if the economy does not need such medicine.Moreover, some FOMC members have voiced concern that loose financial conditions carry risks for financial stability and increase the chances of a sharp correction in asset prices.
Why is the market shrugging? Unemployment is very low and is around what many think of as full employment, but inflation remains stubbornly below the Fed’s 2% target, and has eased in recent months. The economy is growing but at a modest pace ( 0.9% over the first half of 2017) and the market may well believe that inflation will stay low for structural reasons, contrary to the Fed view of a gradual pick up to target.
Does this divergence matter? After all, official rates may be higher but policy remains accommodative ( the real Fed Funds rate is still negative) and it may well be that financial conditions may indeed move if rates do rise steadily from here, as indicated by Fed projections. If not, the Fed may have to raise rates more aggressively if it wants to secure a tightening in financial conditions overall. An inflation shock would change things but for the moment at least markets simply do not believe that the Central Bank needs to tighten as much as the Fed itself thinks. One of them is wrong.