New Year... Same Old Discussions

Chief Economist Eugenio J. Alemán discusses current economic conditions.

The Federal Reserve (Fed) left the door so wide open after the end of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting in mid-December 2023, that markets have run ahead and have continued to push long-term rates lower since the decision was announced. Although 10-year Treasury yields have rebounded somewhat since then and are back above 4% today, they are much lower than they were late in 2023 when they closed in on 5%.

Thus, markets ‘untightened’ monetary policy at the end of 2023 without any nominal change to the federal funds rate by the Fed. However, if we look at the real interest rate, tightening is still occurring even though we expect the Fed to remain put for the next five months. Inflation has moved lower at a faster pace than originally estimated, which means that the real federal funds rate has continued to increase.

Real Federal Funds Rate

In the graph above we have a historical view of the real federal funds rate plus our forecast that goes to the end of 2025. The average real federal funds rate during the historical period gives us a value of about 1.0%. By November of 2023, the real federal funds rate was at about 2.2%, which is a little more than twice the historical average. However, as the graph shows, the variability in the real federal funds rate over history is very wide and today’s real federal funds rate doesn’t seem too high in this context. Furthermore, since the economy has continued to expand above potential, it is difficult to argue that monetary tightening has had a meaningful impact on economic activity, at least until today.

Having said this, not every sector experiences monetary tightening the same way within the U.S. economy. One of the most sensitive sectors to higher interest rates in the U.S. economy has always been the housing market. In this arena, the increase in the federal funds rate as well as Quantitative Tightening (QT) has produced a meaningful tightening in the market for mortgages over the last several years even though mortgage rates are still relatively low compared to the period 1980-2000, as the graph below shows.

Real 30 Year Mortgage Rates