The Federal Reserve’s decision in early 2019 to pause on interest rate hikes is widely credited as a key factor in the stock market’s U-turn this year following the sharp correction in equities in late-2018. But the recent uptick in the Effective Federal Funds rate (EFF) suggests that the central bank is still tightening monetary policy and perhaps laying the groundwork for another rate hike.
Last Friday (Apr. 19), EFF edged up to 2.44%, the highest level in 11 years. As of Monday, EFF held at that rate. Notably, the current level for EFF is also well above its 30-day moving average. In sum, this key interest rate benchmark — the rate that banks charge each other for overnight loans to satisfy reserve requirements – is showing an upside bias of late.
To be fair, the 2.44% rate remains within the Fed’s current target rate: 2.25% to 2.50% and so the central bank hasn’t breached its stated objective. “At 6 basis points from the top of the range, you’re still within the target,” says Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP. Speaking with CNBC, he advises that “the question becomes whether they think technical pressure is driving this. The only concern is whether you’ll have to make a technical adjustment in the future from preventing it from going higher.”
Meantime, EFF has moved to the top of the short list for key indicators to watch in the wake of yesterday’s stock market rally that lifted the S&P 500 Index to a record high. The Fed’s decision early this year to hold off on additional rate hikes has been crucial to the equity market’s recovery in 2019. The obvious question: Is the uptick in EFF a clue that the policy tightening is set to resume? If so, stocks could be in for a bumpy ride.
For now, however, it’s reasonable to see the latest rise in EFF as noise within the target range. That’s the interpretation by Fed Funds futures markets, which is pricing in a virtually zero probability that the central bank will hike rates at the May 1 FOMC meeting, based on CME data. In fact, if there’s a change in the Fed funds target rate at some point this year it’s likely to be down, according to the futures market.
Note, too, that the policy sensitive 2-year Treasury yield continues to reflect a downside bias. Measuring recent activity in this market via a set of exponential moving averages implies that this widely followed rate will likely to ease in the immediate future. In turn, that amounts to a forecast that the Treasury market is still pricing in low odds for another rate hike.
The case for contrarianism may be weak at the moment, but it isn’t dead, at least not yet. Consider the ongoing negative trend in M0 money supply, which suggests that the Fed’s hawkish bias hasn’t been totally expunged. This measure of monetary liquidity (also known as base money or high-powered money) continues to contract. Measuring M0 on a real (inflation-adjusted) basis shows that its year-over-year trend was negative in March, falling nearly 13%. That slide marks the 13th straight month of contraction, which suggests that monetary policy is still reflecting a tightening bias.
Ultimately, any changes in Fed policy will be driven by the economic data. For the moment, recession risk remains low. Growth has moderated, but so far the numbers suggest that slower growth isn’t set to deteriorate further. A big downside surprise in this Friday’s GDP report for the first quarter could alter the outlook, but based on Econoday.com’s consensus forecast the crowd is expecting that Q1 growth will hold steady at a moderate 2.2%, matching the pace in 2018’s final quarter.
The question is whether the Fed is laying the groundwork to revive rate hikes? The mild upside bias in EFF hints at the possibility, although there’s plenty of room for doubt. A rise in EFF above 2.50% in the days and weeks ahead, however, could be a game-changer for policy expectations.