Q: What’s going on with interest rates lately? I know the Federal Reserve is still raising interest rates. But, now I read that mortgage rates are falling and my bond portfolio is also recovering. Can you explain?
A: As we all know, the Fed is deep in the midst of a serious rate hiking campaign. Since March, short-term interest rates have been raised from zero to about 2.25% to 2.5%. The Fed started out slowly this spring and then really picked up speed by this summer. It’s been one of the fastest “monetary tightening” phases in modern history.
Given the Fed’s inaction last year in the face of a sudden surge in inflation, they went into catch-up mode. In unprecedented fashion, they raised rates 0.75% at both their June and July meetings. The Fed basically carried out a policy of shock-and-awe. By mid-June, the major bond market index was down well over 10% as compared to the start of the year.
Thankfully, I believe the Fed has now shifted into a more gentle phase. They have three more scheduled meetings in 2022 and have signaled an additional 1% in cumulative rate hikes by Christmas. Current expectations are for a 0.5% hike at their late-September meeting followed by two smaller 0.25% bumps at the November and December meeting. After that, they’ll likely enter a wait-and-see phase to see how the dust has settled on inflation and the economy.
Investors have more-or-less factored all of this into their calculations. They are already looking “over the valley”, so to speak. And, what do they see on the other side? A break in the inflation fever, for starters. But, to accomplish that feat, they also see the Fed having pushed the economy to the very edge of a recession. And, what happens in a recession? The Fed shifts into reverse and starts to cut interest rates!
So, when you read headlines about mortgage rates falling and when you notice your bonds are starting to recover, try to focus on the direction of longer-term rates rather than short-term rates. The fact is, the Fed can really only control short-term interest rates while longer-term rates are largely set by the market.
To fully exorcise the demon of inflation, the Fed is hell-bent on ignoring hockey legend Wayne Gretzky’s famous advice, “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” Based on current market signals, investors are busy placing bets that the Fed will take things too far. We’ll see where the puck goes next.