The Federal Reserve is widely expected to increase the short-term interest rates it controls by 25 basis points. There have been a string of statements to that effect by Fed Governors and Presidents. And now Fed Vice Chairman Fischer and Chair Janet Yellen have added their voices to the chorus.
Most notable has been the change of heart by Governor Lael Brainard. She was a prominent dove prior to the election. Now she has turned hawk, in what may be one of the greatest conversions since that of St. Paul on the road to Damascus.
If the Fed does not raise rates at the March FOMC meeting, it will surprise financial markets. And it would damage the Fed's remaining credibility. So, we can assume a March rate hike is baked in. The interesting question is how many increases in the Fed's administered interest rates will there be this year. Fed officials are signaling two more, for a total of three in 2017. For reasons I will explain, two more rate increases may not be enough and yet may be too many.
Fed officials reason in terms of the so-called dual mandate of keeping inflation at 2 percent and achieving "full employment." Inflation, which has long been running below 2 percent, is now approaching that rate. And Fed officials have decided that an unemployment rate of 4.8 percent signals the economy is at or close to full employment. For purposes of this piece, I will accept both judgments. So, the dual mandate certainly calls for one rate hike, and might justify two or three.
I believe there is another, underlying justification for at least three rate increases. That is a desire to get back to "normal" interest rates and "normal" monetary policy. "Normal" is a term of art, but certainly does not sanction interest rates in the zero-to-one-percent range. So the next rate increase is only a first step to normality.
I would also argue that a Fed balance sheet of $4.0+ trillion is not normal. But shrinking the balance sheet remains too big a dose of normality for now for most Fed officials. Nonetheless, a return to normal interest rates justifies three increases in the Fed's short-term interest rates.
There are other, largely unstated reasons for beginning a program of rate increases that very well might not be limited to three. First, Fed officials know that financial firms generally are being squeezed by ultra-low interest rates.
The margins between what they pay for funds and what they can earn deploying funds (e.g., making loans) have been squeezed. Bank stock prices have rallied not just on the prospects of financial deregulation in the Trump administration, but also in anticipation of interest-rate increases.