Barring a huge surprise, the US Federal Reserve’s open market committee is expected today to unveil its first rise in target rates in more than nine years, three months after pressure from markets forced it to abandon plans to raise rates at its September meeting.
Since then, the two key measures it is mandated to target — inflation and unemployment — have moved so as to give stronger justification for raising rates. But most of the market pressures that forced the Fed to delay a rate rise in September, including falling commodity prices, depreciating emerging market currencies, especially in China, and stressed credit markets, have only intensified since then. Markets have made the decision far harder.
Since September 15, market inflation forecasts have actually fallen, with markets now predicting average inflation of 1.47 per cent — below the Fed’s target rate — over the next 10 years.
US stocks have gained since September 15, but this is almost entirely due to big companies, with the Russell Top 50 index — covering the 50 largest stocks by market value — rising 6.4 per cent, while the Russell 2000 index of smaller companies has fallen by 3 per cent.
Emerging market currencies have depreciated a further 2.6 per cent. And the Chinese renminbi, after stabilising, has now weakened to a lower level against the dollar than at any point during August. In credit markets, investors were alarmed last week by a sharp fall for high-yield “junk” credit regarded as the highest risk. The Merrill Lynch index of high-yield is now down some 6.5 per cent over the past three months.
Despite all these measures, market opinion remained overwhelming that the long-awaited rate rise would at last arrive, with the Fed Funds futures market putting the chances at 76 per cent.
The main reason for this is the economy. Unemployment has ticked down from 5.1 to 5.0 per cent since September, while core inflation last month rose to 2 per cent. Wage inflation reached 2.5 per cent a month, a post-crisis high. This explains why markets expect the Fed to go through with a higher interest rate. But they did not make the task easy.