US rates “low for long”

Risk appetite is failing to show much improvement this week and sharply weaker than forecast US housing data dampened sentiment further following other soft data over recent days including the Empire manufacturing survey, industrial production and retail sales less autos. The data will add to concerns about the pace and magnitude of growth in the months ahead.

A sub-par recovery and benign inflation outlook are the two main reasons why the Fed will not hike rates for a long while yet. This was echoed by St. Louis Fed President Bullard – a voting member of the FOMC – who gave a little more colour on the Fed’s “extended period” statement. He highlighted the probability that US interest rates will not be raised until the first half of 2012.

Bullard noted that following the past two recessions the Fed did not raise rates until two and half to three years after recession ended. This is accurate given that in 2001 the Fed did not begin to hike rates until around 2 ½ years after the end of the recession whilst in 1990-91 rates did not go up until close to 3 years after recession ended. This recession just passed was arguably worse than both of the past two, so why should rates rise any earlier?

One factor that could trigger an earlier rate hike is the risks from the massive global liquidity fuelled carry trade fuelled by Fed policy. Bullard highlighted that the risks of creating an asset bubble from keeping rates “too low for too long” may prompt an earlier tightening. What will be important is that the Fed gets the exit strategy right and the risk that delaying any reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet and asset purchases could turn out to be inflationary which in turn would be negative for the USD and hit confidence in US assets.

The Fed is very likely to adjust the level of quantitative easing well before contemplating raising interest rates. The market is pricing in around 50bps of rate hikes in the next 12 months but even this looks to aggressive and as has been the case of recent months the market is likely to push back the timing of expected rate hikes. The consequences for the USD are negative at least until the market becomes more aggressive in pricing in US interest rate hikes or believes the Fed is serious about its exit strategy.

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