As members continue to navigate in an economy still balancing on an unsteady tightrope, high unemployment and inflation may be the major drivers behind the Federal Reserve Board’s decision to raise interest rates.
Jason Haley, fixed income strategist for ALM First Financial Advisors LLC, offered that opinion shortly after the Federal Open Market Committee gave its recent assessment that the economic recovery is proceeding at a moderate pace and overall conditions in the labor market are improving gradually.
To promote a stronger pace of economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with its mandate, the FOMC also decided to continue expanding its holdings of securities as announced in November.
In particular, the committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its securities holdings and will complete purchases of $600 billion of longer term Treasury securities by the end of the current quarter.
Haley, who keeps a keen eye on national and international economies to help credit unions figure out their next moves in managing their asset-liability portfolios, said there are a number of factors at play on how the rest of 2011 will pan out. For instance, will the global recovery continue to push forward even as some governments reduce monetary and fiscal stimulus?
He also questioned if domestic job growth will accelerate and have a meaningful impact on U.S. GDP growth? Will housing prices finally hit bottom and lead to a stabilization of the market?
"These are just a sample of the questions that investors, economists and policymakers are asking at the moment," Haley said.
"Unlike the European Central Bank, the Federal Reserve has a dual mandate of price stability and full employment. As long as unemployment remains at historically high levels and core inflation remains well below 2%, the most powerful Fed members–Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen, and William Dudley–will be in no hurry to tighten any of its accommodative policies," Haley said.
By far, the housing market continues to drag down the economy. Haley said historically high loan defaults and falling home prices are the culprits. The median house decline most recently reported was 3%, the sharpest drop since 2008, he noted. Nearly 29% of homes are underwater, which is up from 22% in 2010. While home sales are occurring, they’re cloaked in distressed conditions such as short sales and foreclosures, Haley said.
"It’s supply and demand. We need to find a bottom with housing. At one point, economists were looking at the end of the year, now it may not happen until 2012."
For credit unions and other lenders, homes remain the largest asset for members and customers. Haley said if a person is having ongoing troubles making mortgage payments, that will spill over into other financial areas. Still, geographically, there are some parts of the country where some credit unions are reporting improved loan demand and better credit quality, he added.
Haley said if he had to pick a general direction of the economy in the first quarter of 2011, most would say that it was clearly moving forward. Using the Treasury market as a gauge of the status of the recovery, it would appear that investors are beginning to believe that recovery has firmed its footing and the deflation concerns of the third quarter of 2010 have shifted to concerns over inflation in the first quarter of 2011.
In the meantime, credit unions should remember how things can quickly change, Haley reminded. To that end, the importance of managing portfolios to those adjustments is critical. That means looking outside of the U.S. to global economies.
"No one has a crystal ball but you have to be ready to adjust," Haley said. "People may get personally attached to their forecasts. That can be dangerous. Credit unions might want to ask what is the current economic environment when I’m making a credit decision or a loan origination and what’s good for the members and [the credit union’s] general business plan."