Thursday 14 November 2019

The Fed hesitates again, but rate rise is inevitable

Mario Draghi in Frankfurrt yesterday. Photo: Reuters
Mario Draghi in Frankfurrt yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Thomas Molloy

St Augustine once begged God to "grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." The markets feel much the same way about quantitative easing.

Everybody knows that US interest rates cannot be held at zero indefinitely - but cheap money is a very tempting proposition, and few people in the money markets want it to stop now.

Last night, in what was possibly the most important financial event of the year, and certainly the most hotly anticipated, we got more of the same from the US Federal Reserve; a promise to end cheap money but, like St Augustine's plea, not yet.

The Fed, which has not raised interest rates in nine years, has been taunting the markets for some time with reminders that all good things must come to an end. Yesterday, the taunting continued as Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen talked to the markets after two days of private deliberations.

Once again, Ms Yellen and her colleagues stopped short of going all the way. Almost everybody had interpreted her recent remarks as a warning that she would begin raising interest rates in June or even earlier.

In the event, Ms Yellen sounded a note of caution by saying that the US economy is not growing quite as quickly as she would like. That comment led many investors to conclude that the return of interest rate hikes is now more likely in the autumn than the summer. The dollar had a bad day, falling the most in six years, but this is just the typical spasm of a nervous market. The US currency is only heading in one direction over the medium term; towards parity with the euro.

Literally, trillions of dollars have been wagered on this subject as investors sold US stocks and bonds to buy the dollar and European shares.

The result has been a dollar trading at multi-year highs against the euro and many other currencies. A dollar is close in value to a euro these days, and could well overtake the euro within months if trends continue and the Fed stops quantitative easing, while the European Central Bank gets stuck into its programme of printing money.

Investors, business leaders and politicians have all been waiting for this moment, sometimes dubbed the great rotation, when quantitative easing moves from the US to Europe.

It is a delicate juncture for both the developed and developing world.

In Europe, shares have risen to a seven-year high on hopes that money printing will boost companies and growth. Jumps like this always create expectations that are difficult to fulfil.

Here in Ireland, the economy will undoubtedly boom in the short-term as exports pick up but there may well be long-term costs. The Government is already showing a reluctance to continue with the reforms necessary to secure the country's long-term future now that cheap money is papering over the cracks.

ECB president Mario Draghi (right) has warned all eurozone governments repeatedly that cheap money can only buy time for reform. So far, most leaders have understandably used the stimulus to slacken the sometimes horrific effects of austerity.

Strangely, the end of quantitative easing may have the biggest effects on the developing world. Companies in places such as Brazil have used cheap money to borrow endlessly. As rates rise, they face higher repayment costs.

The International Monetary Fund's Christine Lagarde warned last week that rate rises could trigger instability in emerging markets.

The jury is out about the exact consequences of rising US rates but the big news is Ms Yellen made it clear yesterday that it is a matter of when not if. The wait is over for an end to quantitative easing in the country that began it under President George W Bush.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss