The Fed and Interest Rates
Dave Pettit of The Wall Street Journal writes a daily column that appears inside the first page of the journal’s Money ; Investment section. If the headlines of Mr. Pettit’s daily column are any accurate record of economic concerns and current issues in the business world, the late weeks of March and the early weeks of April in 1994 were intensely concerned with interest rates. To quote, “Industrials Edge Up 4.32 Points amid Caution on Interest Rates,” and “Industrials Track on 13.53 Points despite Interest-Rate Concerns.” Why such a concern with interest rates? A week before, in the last week of March, the Fed had pushed up the short-term rates. This being the first increase in almost five years, it caused quite a stir.
When the Fed decides the economy is growing at too quick a pace, or inflation is getting out of hand, it can take actions to slow spending and decrease the money supply. This corresponding with the money equation MV = PY, by lowering both M and V, P and Y can stabilize if they are increasing too rapidly. The Fed does this by selling securities on the open market. This, in turn, reduces bank’s reserves and forces the interest rate to rise so the banks can afford to make loans. People seeing these rises in rates will tend to sell their low interest assets, in order to acquire additional money, they tend move toward higher yielding accounts, also further increasing the rate. Soon this small change by the Fed affects all aspects of business, from the price level to interest rates on credit cards.
Rises and falls in the interest rate can reflect many changes in an economy. When the economy is in a recession and needs a type of stimulus package, the Fed may attempt to decrease the interest rates to encourage growth and spending in the markets. This was the case from 1989 until last month, during which the nation’s economy was generally considered to be in a slight to moderate recession. During this period the Fed tried to keep interest rates low to facilitate growth and spending in hard times. However, when inflation is increasing too quickly and the economy is gaining strength, the Fed will attempt to raise rates, as it did late last March. This can be considered a sign that we are pulling out of the recession, or at least it seems the Fed feels the recession of the early nineties is ending.
Directly after the Fed’s actions, the stock market was a mess. The Dow took huge dips, falling as much as 50 points a day. Although no one knows exactly what influences the market, the increase in interest rates played a major role in this craziness. Mr. Pettit’s column on March 25th highlights, “Industrials Slide 48.37,” Mr. Pettit attributes a large portion of the market’s “tailspin” at this time to, “Rising interest rates at home.” It is certainly no coincidence that these two events happened at the same time.
Alan Greenspan, the current chairman of the Fed comes under great attack and praise with every move the Fed makes. He is, in a sense, the embodiment of the Fed. He has been in charge of the Fed since 1987. Some economists blame him for the recession of the early nineties. His influence on the interest rates as chairman of the Fed is monumental. It is his combined job as the Fed to steer the economy in a balanced manner that does not yield too much to inflation and to keep growth steady. Predictably, most economists are back seat drivers when it comes to watching the actions of Allen Greenspan, and they tend to feel they could much more successfully manage the economy than he. Many also agree with his tactics, so it is a two way street on which the chairman is forced to drive.
It seems that not only the analysts are in disagreement of how the fed should operate, but interestingly enough, the internal policy makers seem to also disagree on what stance the Fed should take. Some of the internal policy makers are interested in making a more substantial increase now, while others opt for a more conservative approach, where the market can be tested for both good and bad influences from the rate increases. Allen Greenspan is one of these more conservative groups, and it is he is criticized by some for the erratic behavior in the stock market as of late.
The equilibrium that the Fed is looking for occurs when an interest rate is set that makes the quantity of real money available be willingly held. Because this is such a delicate system this “equilibrium” is never exactly met, and the Fed’s job is to try to keep the market at or near this form of equilibrium. Unfortunately this case is never exactly met, and the market can easily suffer because of it.
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