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A Critical Challenge

Monday, 21 Sep 2009 | 11:05 AM ET

If you think back a few years, it seemed as if the Fed changed interest rates just about every time it met, didn’t it? Here’s how many times rates changed over the last five years:

  • 2004: 5 (all increases)
  • 2005: 8 (all increases)
  • 2006: 4 (all increases)
  • 2007: 3 (all cuts)
  • 2008: 7 (all cuts)

So far in 2009, we’ve had no changes. You have to go back to December for the last one, which was a sizable three-quarter point cut. That brought rates to historic lows near 0%, so there was no room to cut further, and the recession made it impossible to raise rates.

This week, the Fed holds the sixth of its eight scheduled meetings in 2009, and we’ll get the latest announcement Wednesday about interest-rate policy. Virtually everyone I talk to expects rates to remain the same, and I would also be very surprised at any adjustment.

However, we’re getting closer to the time when Wall Street will once again practically stop what it’s doing when the Fed “speaks.”

As you may recall, Chairman Ben Bernanke said last week that the recession was “very likely over.” He also said the recovery could be slow, so rates could well remain unchanged through the rest of this year.

I’ve talked to a few members of the Federal Reserve recently, and I know they are beginning to think about a so-called “exit strategy.” The unprecedented efforts to stimulate the economy have to be unwound at some point, or inflation will run rampant. See my recentinterview with Charles Plosser, President of the Philadelphia Fed, which just announced higher-than-expected manufacturing activity in the Mid-Atlantic region. I also talked with former Chicago Fed President Michael Moskow on Friday about how important the Fed’s exit strategy is.

The critical challenge, of course, will be how to scale back these efforts without choking growth and inadvertently kicking the U.S. back into a recession.

At recent conferences I’ve attended, global business leaders have been virtually unanimous in telling me that any recovery in their businesses – if they are seeing one at all – is tepid at best. This raises the question whether the market has gotten too far ahead of the economy, and future Fed decisions are sure to impact both.

I believe this will become one of the most important stories for investors as we close out 2009 and head into 2010, and we will follow it very closely.

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Questions? Comments? Write toinvestoragenda@cnbc.com

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