To absolutely no one’s surprise, the Fed raised rates this afternoon by a very modest amount. The news will be splashed across front pages around the world tomorrow—despite the fact that it would have been much bigger news if it hadn’t happened—because it essentially marks the official end of the financial crisis.
Seven years ago, the Fed took the unprecedented step of cutting rates all the way to zero. It then took the equally unprecedented step of promising to keep them there for a very long period of time. The two steps were important, both in terms of substance—the Fed providing all the necessary money that the economy needed to recover from the crisis—and in terms of convincing the world, and markets, that the Fed was going to do anything and everything it could to help America get back on track.
But America is back on track now, and therefore today’s move sends an equally important signal. Fed chair Janet Yellen is saying that the Fed’s not on an emergency footing anymore, and that while there’s probably no good time to start bringing things back to some semblance of normality, at some point it becomes even worse not to do that. You can always push it off an extra month or so, and Yellen has done exactly that for the past few meetings. But America is not in emergency mode any more, and it’s a bit weird for its monetary policy committee to be setting interest rates quasi-permanently as though the world is still falling apart.
Yellen certainly raised rates the right way: by doing everything short of taking out a full-page ad in the New York Times telling everybody exactly what it’s going to do, the Fed ensured that there wouldn’t be any market tantrums when the rate hike finally happened. (Whatever noise you might be seeing in the market right now is mostly meaningless, and insofar as it isn’t, it’s a reaction to the detailed language in the Fed’s statement, rather than to the fact that the Fed hiked.)
And while there are a lot of seemingly sensible reasons not to raise rates right now, they all boil down to essentially the same thing: the Fed has a mandate to achieve 2% inflation and full employment, we’re not there yet on either front, and both the economy and the markets could still use some extra help in getting there. So a rate hike, which slows down the economy and hurts the market, is a move in the wrong direction.
But moving its rate target to a range of a quarter point to a half a point is going to have no measurable effect on either the economy or the markets. This is a symbolic hike much more than it is an attempt to actually affect the pace at which the economy is growing. The bigger picture is that rates in general are going to remain extremely low for an extremely long time, and almost anybody who wants to borrow money is going to be able to continue to do so very cheaply. Junk-bond issuers in the energy sector may have some trouble, but certainly when it comes to rates on things like credit cards, student loans, car loans, and mortgages, this minor hike is going to have no visible consequences whatsoever.
So there’s no reason to start freaking out that the Fed is moving too fast—not yet, anyway. In terms of how real Americans live their lives day to day, absolutely nothing has changed. But at least now we’ve exited the bizarre world of zero interest rates, and we’re reverting, slowly, to some approximation of normality. That, surely, is something to celebrate.