two more years of emergency-low interest rates!

the January 25th Fed meeting

Last week’s meeting of the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee had two important results:

1.  Chairman Ben Bernanke said the Fed funds rate, which has been at effectively 0% for just over three years (since December 16, 2008–how time flies) will likely remain at or near the current low rate into 2014.

2.  The Fed gave more detail than ever before on its thinking about prospects for the US economy and the appropriate level for the Fed funds rate.

The Fed thinks:

–the long-term growth rate of the US economy is  +2.4%-2.5%  a year (vs. 3%+ a decade ago).  The agency is content, however, to allow growth at somewhat above that rate from now into 2014.

–the appropriate long-term level for the Fed funds rate is about 4.5%, which amounts to a 2.5% real rate of interest (“real” means after subtracting inflation from the nominal rate).  This contrasts with the current rate, which is a negative real rate of about 2.5%.

–although the process of normalizing interest rates will probably begin before the end of 2014, the Fed is unlikely to raise the funds rate above 1% until at least 2015.

–despite the immense monetary stimulation going on now, inflation will not be an issue.  It will remain at 2% or below.

–the “natural” rate of unemployment, that is, full employment, is 5.5% of the workforce (in theory, the 5.5% is friction in the system–like people in transit from one employment location to another, or who decide to take a short break between jobs…).

According to the Fed’s projections, the unemployment rate will remain above 8% until some time in 2013.  It probably won’t crack below 7% for at least the next three years.

implications

The forecast itself isn’t a shocker.  The Fed has been talking about slow but steady progress for the economy, with no inflation threat, for some time.  The real news is that the Fed expects the current situation to persist into 2105, a year longer than it had previously indicated.

1.  To my mind, the biggest implication of the Fed announcements is that it makes less sense than ever to be holding a lot of cash.  How much “a lot” is depends on your economic circumstances and risk preferences.  But the Fed is saying that a money market fund or bank deposit is going to yield nothing for the next two years and well under 1% for the year after that.  Yes, you have secure storage in a bank and substantial assurance you won’t make a loss, but that’s about it.

To find income in liquid assets–as opposed to illiquid ones like, say, rental real estate–you have to look to riskier investments, dividend-paying stocks or long-dated bonds.  That in itself is nothing new.  Savers have been reallocating in this direction for the past couple of years.  Last week’s Fed’s message, though, is that it’s much too early to reverse these positions.  If anything–and, again, depending on personal circumstances and preferences–investors should think about allocating more away from cash.

2.  When the process of normalizing interest rates is eventually underway, the yields on long-dated bonds and dividend paying stocks will be benchmarked–and judged–against cash yields of 4%+.  For stocks, a static dividend yield of 3% won’t look that attractive.  At some point, low payout ratios (meaning the percentage of earnings paid out in dividends) and the ability to increase cash generation will become key attributes.  Both are indicators of a company’s ability to raise dividends.

3.  It’s my experience that when the Fed begins to tighten, Wall Street always underestimates how much rates will rise.  Last week, the Fed told us that when the Fed funds rate goes up this time, its ultimate destination is 4.5%.

4.  Investors taking a top-down view, that is, looking for the strongest economies, will have to seek exposure outside the US–which will only look good vs. the EU and Japan.  The main issue is demographics–an aging population.  It’s probably worthwhile to try to figure out what characteristics of the latter two economies, both of which have older populations than the US, are due to social/cultural peculiarities and which are due to aging.  The second set of traits may well turn up in the US market as well.

5.  The mechanics of how growth stocks and value stocks work may change in a slower-growing economy.  It’s hard to know today how that will play out.  True growth stocks may be harder to come by.  Value investors who say they buy asset value of $1.00 at $.30 and sell it at $.70 may have to buy at $.20 and sell at $.60 if there’s less room for second- and third-tier companies to succeed.

I think it’s way too soon to be worrying about anything other than #1.  The rest are thoughts to be filed away for next year, maybe.

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