WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve is raising interest rates from record lows set at the depths of the 2008 financial crisis, a shift that heralds modestly higher rates on some loans.
The Fed coupled its first rate hike in nine years with a signal that further increases will likely be made slowly as the economy strengthens further and inflation rises from undesirably low levels.
Wednesday’s action signaled the central bank’s belief that the economy has finally regained enough strength 6½ years after the Great Recession ended to withstand modestly higher borrowing rates.
“The Fed’s decision today reflects our confidence in the U.S. economy,” Chair Janet Yellen said at a news conference.
The Fed said in a statement after its latest meeting that it was lifting its key rate by a quarter-point to a range of 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent. Its move ends an extraordinary seven-year period of near-zero borrowing rates. But the Fed’s statement suggested that rates would remain historically low well into the future, saying it expects “only gradual increases.”
“The Fed reaffirmed that the pace of rate hikes would be slow,” James Marple, senior economist at TD Economics wrote in a research note. “The Fed’s expectations for rate hikes next year are set alongside a relatively cautious and entirely achievable economic outlook.”
Stocks closed up sharply higher. The Dow Jones industrial average, which had been up modestly before the announcement, gained 224 points, or 1.3 percent, for the day.
The bond market didn’t react much. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose slightly to 2.29 percent.
Rates on mortgages and car loans aren’t expected to rise much soon. The Fed’s benchmark rate doesn’t directly affect them. Long-term mortgages, for example, tend to track 10-year U.S. Treasury yields, which will likely stay low as long as inflation does and investors keep buying Treasurys.
But rates on some other loans, like credit cards and home equity credit lines, will likely rise, though probably only slightly as long as the Fed’s rate hikes remain modest.
Shortly after the Fed’s announcement, major banks began announcing that they were raising their prime lending rate from 3.25 percent to 3.50 percent. The prime rate is a benchmark for some types of consumer loans such as home equity loans. Wells Fargo was the first bank to announce the rate hike.
Among other things, the Fed’s low-interest rate policies have helped jump-start auto sales, which are on track to reach a record 17.5 million this year. And the Fed’s first hike may not slow them.
Steven Szakaly, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, says dealers will press financing companies to keep loan rates low. And competition for buyers will spur them to take other steps to hold down rates, such as accepting lower profits.
“The rate squeeze will happen between the dealer and its finance company rather than the dealer and the consumers,” Szakaly said. “Consumers won’t even feel it.”
For months, Yellen and other Fed officials have said they expected any rate hikes to be small and gradual. But nervous investors have been looking for further assurances.
Yellen indicated that Wednesday’s rate hike was partially defensive. If rates stayed at near zero, the Fed might not have the tools to combat a recession.
“We’ve worried about the fact that with interest rates at zero, we have less scope to respond to negative shocks,” she said at her news conference.
When growth struggles, the Fed often cuts rates to help increase the amount of cash flowing through the economy. But by staying close to zero, the Fed would be unable to cut rates or it would be forced to have negative rates for the first time in its history.
Zero Hedge asks whether the timing was helpful?
Once again we ask The Fed, “why now?”
Bloomberg’s Consumer Comfort survey found 69% of people hads a negative view of the state of the economy, netting to the 30.6 print above –the lowest since November 2014… The perfect time to hike rates?