Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke made history this week when he said the Fed would keep long term rates low until unemployment drops to 6.5% or below.
What does that mean for credit unions and their 2013 planning?
Credit Union Times asked three industry economists. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t change much.)
Andrew Kohl, senior vice president and director of advisory services for Balance Sheet Solutions, a subsidiary of the Warrenville, Ill.-based Alloya Corporate FCU, said that while the Fed report marked an increase in transparency, the central bank’s rate forecast hasn’t changed. The Fed is still predicting a low rate environment through mid-2015.
“The Treasury market didn’t really react, and for credit unions, we’re looking at a similar rate curve for the next two to three years,” Kohl said.
Dwight Johnston, chief economist at the California Credit Union League, agreed with the transparency observation, but warned that Bernanke’s announcement could trigger an increase in rates.
“Let’s say the unemployment rates continues to edge lower, as it has since last year, and hits 7%,” Johnston said. “Although still above 6.5%, the bond market will start anticipating the move to 6.50% and trade accordingly. Longer-term rates will jump first. The Fed’s change then does introduce a new element of risk down the road and increase volatility in rates.”
Johnston added that the unemployment rate could fall, but only because people are exiting the job market, not because there are more jobs. And, as the unemployment rate falls, inflation could rise.
“In other words, putting specific economic targets down on paper sounds good, but the actual execution of monetary policy based on specific targets will be much more difficult than it sounds,” the veteran economist said.
Brian Hague, president/COO of credit union investment firm CNBS LLC, added that the 6.5% unemployment rate isn’t an automatic trigger – interest rates won’t rise just because the unemployment rate falls – and, the Fed could adjust that target rate.
“They targeted the jobless rate because they wanted to give the impression that Fed policies were doing something about joblessness,” Hague said. “But, the bottom line is that neither central banks nor politicians create jobs. Demand creates jobs.”
Hague said that November gains in retail sales numbers were boosted by Hurricane Sandy repairs, so high that if home improvement and replacement autos are taken out of the equation, sales only increased in November by 0.1%.
“That includes Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, so that’s not a good sign,” Hague said.
Consumer confidence numbers fell in November, prompted by fears over fiscal cliff fallout. However, Hague said he thinks much of that fear is the result of the media “doing an outstanding job of convincing us the world will end if we go off the fiscal cliff.”
The country has paid higher taxes and cut spending in more draconian ways before, he said, and the world didn’t come to an end.
Kohl, meanwhile, added that the Fed’s purchases of mortgage-backed securities has largely contributed to the fragile momentum currently in the housing industry, but warned that housing is a much smaller percentage of the economy that it has been in the past, and combined with fiscal cliff consequences, the country is facing “some sense of fiscal austerity in 2013.”
However, Kohl predicted GDP growth will remain unchanged from recent years, at 2% for next year.