US Interest Rates: Slowdown Scuppers Chance of July Rate Rise

Weak employment data at home and economic uncertainty overseas has slowed the Fed’s approach to ‘normalising’ interest rates

BlackRock 17 June, 2016 | 10:54AM
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Morningstar's "Perspectives" series features investment insights from third-party contributors. Here, Rick Rieder,chief investment officers of Global Fixed Income at BlackRock looks at this week’s interest rate decision in the US

There were three key points to take from this week’s announcement and press conference by the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), following it decision to keep interest rates on hold in the US, within a range of 0.25% and 0.5%.

  • The FOMC  delivered a statement that described a more dovish path to further normalizing interest rates, as the central bank kept the door open for a possible July rate hike, but kept it barely ajar. The Fed will almost definitely not have an opportunity to move until at least the September meeting.
  • On labour markets, for a variety of reasons we think it’s likely that labour market growth remains slow in the back half of the year, as an already tight jobs market, weakening corporate earnings, and policy-inspired wage hikes are likely to combine to moderate growth.
  • Beyond its concern over slowing labor market growth and low inflation, the Fed is understandably concerned with risks from abroad, so keeping a close eye on moves in the USD and global financial conditions, such as those in China, will be important for understanding the timing of any Fed move, as will the near-term path of hiring after May’s weak payroll report.


Slowing Jobs Growth in the US

The announcement and press conference put forward by the FOMC generally represents a continuation of its “wait-and-see” approach, which nevertheless also seems calibrated to continue to try to leave the door open to some degree of interest rate policy normalization this year. Still, the pace of that change has been profoundly altered since the December 2015 meeting, both as a result of domestic considerations as well as international concerns.

As we have argued previously, accurately judging the policy path for the Fed will require keeping one eye on domestic economic fault lines (jobs growth, inflation expectations, and corporate profits, for example) and the other eye on conditions abroad, and particularly in China, which continues to stand as the most important lever of global economic growth.

The extraordinary weakness displayed in May’s employment report, alongside the disappointing revisions to the March and April payroll prints (even after adjusting for the Verizon strike and weather-related factors) underscored our view that jobs growth had to moderate this year. Indeed, with the large-scale employment gains witnessed in recent years, we knew a continuation of that pace would be very difficult to sustain.

Further, we have grown increasingly concerned over the rolling over of corporate profits, as payrolls tend to track corporate profits quite closely (with a six-month lag), so we continue to expect to see weaker jobs numbers as the year progresses.

Higher Wages Hampering Growth

Finally, we’re concerned that one of the strongest sources of job growth in recent years, the leisure and hospitality sectors, could now face a significant headwind. That headwind takes the form of higher wages, both due to a tight market for labour and due to some meaningful increases in minimum wage rates in several states.

When wage costs are increased through policy rather than via market mechanisms, revenues and profits can take a hit unless businesses can exhibit pricing power to correspondingly increase what they charge end customers to offset their own labour cost increases. The net result could well be lower levels of hiring in this important area of the economy, our commentary contended. Still, how would slower labour market growth influence the Fed’s reaction function?

Given that strong labor markets have been one of the hallmarks of the past few years of expansion, a slowing in this area would certainly make raising rates more difficult for the Fed. Ultimately, we do believe interest rates should be normalized at a measured pace, given that it’s clear to us that the economic effectiveness of low rates in stimulating economic growth has been significantly diminished in recent years.

At the same time the externalities of the policy have been on full display. Still, much more normalization this year may be difficult for the central bank to accomplish, particularly should jobs growth continue to slow, inflation expectations and realized inflation remain moderate, and both domestic and international political risks continue to roil markets. Unless we see a significant improvement in economic data, and stability in global financial markets, we are likely to see only one or at most two rate hikes this year, and while July is still a possibility, the year’s last third is a more likely time for any policy move.

The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

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