Shifting Expectations and Interest Rates
By simply changing their views about future economic conditions and the likely policy response, monetary policymakers can alter financial conditions in the present. As a result, how policymakers choose to communicate their expectations influences the effectiveness of their policies. The recent rise of interest rates is a case in point.
Since the beginning of the year, there have been no explicit changes to monetary policy actions. The Federal Reserve has been purchasing the same amount of federal-agency mortgage-backed securities and Treasury securities since January, and the target for the federal funds rate has not changed. Still, interest rates have steadily risen over the past few months (although they have moderated somewhat recently). Rising rates effectively translate into tightening financial conditions, which could feed into broader economic conditions as well. A key factor influencing these rates is market participants’ evolving expectations about the timing of future changes in monetary policy, especially in the context of the Committee’s economic projections.
The yield on a 10-year treasury bond, which is highly correlated with many other longer-term interest rates, including rates on mortgages and corporate bond yields, has increased from around 1.7 percent to nearly 2.6 percent since May 1. Similarly, on the shorter end of the maturity distribution, interest rates on 2-year treasury bonds have increased from around 0.2 percent to over 0.3 percent. The largest movements in these rates came in the days following the June Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, when the Committee released its updated economic projections and Chairman Bernanke gave additional details on the predicted future of asset purchases. In contrast, the reaction after the July FOMC meeting, when less new information about the Committee’s outlook was provided, was rather muted. This suggests that, while there are many influences on interest rates, the outlook and expectations of FOMC participants are playing some role in driving these tighter financial conditions.
Looking at these yields on the date of the June meeting provides further evidence of the impact that the FOMC’s outlook is having on financial conditions. Sharp increases are observed in the intraday yields for the 2-year treasury rate, which coincide with the release of new economic projections and the Chairman’s press conference on future plans for monetary policy. Additionally, the 10-year Treasury rate experiences a significant jump following the press conference and finishes on June 19 nearly 20 basis points higher than the level at which it started the day. Therefore, while no explicit changes to policy actions were made at the June meeting, the yields on both the short- and longer-term Treasury bonds increased considerably throughout the day, and the new rates reached on these bonds after this meeting persisted through July.
One of the likely causes of the strong reaction of financial markets to the June meeting was the release of the Committee’s economic projections. Those projections reflected some improvement in the FOMC’s forecast, notably for the unemployment rate, over the Committee’s previously released projections in March. Specifically, the central tendency of the unemployment rate forecasts for 2014 encompassed 6½ percent, the Committee’s threshold for raising the federal funds rate target; while in the March projections, a majority of FOMC participants saw the unemployment rate reaching this threshold some time in 2015. Given this shift in the unemployment rate forecast and the FOMC’s threshold, the improved outlook is expected to impact the projected path of the federal funds rate, which will additionally feed into other longer-term rates in the present.
In order to gauge market expectations for the path of the federal funds rate, we can look at data from federal funds futures contracts. The expected path of the federal funds rate shifted higher following the June meeting and has remained at this level for most of June and July. The upper bound on the current target range for the federal funds rate set by the FOMC is currently 0.25 percent. Since this expected path has steepened since May 1 and has continued to follow the higher path first seen on June 19, the expectation about when the federal funds rate will exceed the current target range and come off of the “lower bound” is now not as far away as previously thought, and it is no coincidence that this shift corresponds with the improvement in the outlook for the unemployment rate.
Additionally, expectations about the projected path of short-term interest rates play a major role in determining the current level of long-term interest rates, so this shift in expectations is likely to feed through to current interest rates on securities with longer maturities, like 2- or 10-year Treasury bonds, as well as mortgages or auto loans.
Another potential cause of the recent shift in interest rates, especially on longer-term securities, is changes to expectations about the Federal Reserve’s asset purchase program. The Federal Reserve started purchasing long-term securities when the primary monetary policy tool, the target federal funds rate, reached its zero lower bound following the financial crisis, and further easing in financial conditions was needed. Since this program is a tool meant to influence interest rates, changes in how these purchases are expected to evolve are likely to impact the behavior of interest rates as well. At the June meeting, Chairman Bernanke laid out a potential path of asset purchases if the economic recovery were to proceed as forecasted. The Chairman’s statement may have caused the market’s expectations about the path of asset purchases to shift from previous projections closer to the path he presented, which would impact the current level of interest rates.
One view of potential shifts in expectations for asset purchases is drawn from the Survey of Primary Dealers. Primary dealers—financial institutions that trade securities directly with the Federal Reserve—are regularly surveyed on their expectations for the economy, monetary policy, and financial market developments prior to FOMC meetings. Data from this survey show that there was a downward shift to the expected pace of asset purchases following the June meeting. This shift is likely playing some role in the recent increases in interest rates, although it is tough to determine what the impact is or to differentiate it from the impact of shifts in the expectations of other policy tools.
Even as monetary policy actions remain consistent, expectations about future monetary policy actions are likely to change as the economy evolves. As these expectations change, they are likely to have a fresh impact on current financial and economic conditions.