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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Explained: Why the release of Fed minutes sent a shiver of concern through global markets

Traders across markets have taken that as a sign that the Fed might be more aggressive about rolling back the stimulus that has been feeding stock market gains across geographies.

Written by Anil Sasi , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 7, 2022 8:49:08 am
A screen on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shows the rate decision of the Federal Reserve, on Sept. 22, 2021. (AP)

The BSE Sensex and the NSE Nifty slipped into the red during early trade on Thursday after a four-day streak of gains, tracking similar losses across global benchmark indices over the last 24 hours.

This came after the release of the minutes of the Federal Reserve meeting last month that seemed to reinforce the view that the American central bank might raise interest rates at a faster rate to counter runaway inflation in the United States.

The minutes showed that policymakers are convinced the American job market is robust enough to enable the jettisoning of the ultra-low interest rates.

Traders across markets have taken that as a sign that the Fed might be more aggressive about rolling back the stimulus that has been feeding stock market gains across geographies.

What did the minutes indicate?

The Fed minutes essentially reinforced concerns being flagged by multiple policymakers that inflation was diffusing into more areas of the economy, and would linger on for much longer.

The records showed that the Fed discussed the possible need to hike short-term interest rates at a faster pace and taper off the bond purchases that inject money into the financial system.

The minutes buttressed the Fed announcement after its December meeting that it will curtail its extraordinary policy support for the American economy more quickly than predicted, underscoring its plans to hike interest rates three times next year.

Amid surging inflation and sliding unemployment, Fed Chair Jerome Powell had said the US economy was growing at a “robust pace” even as it “faces risks” from the Covid-19 pandemic.

But with inflation likely to persist for longer than the Fed had earlier projected, Powell had said the central bank needed to address the threat of runaway prices to help the economy sustain its growth.

The new projections are being seen as a definitive move to frontload the reversal of the central bank’s expansionary monetary policy put in place in early 2020 to invigorate the American economy amid the Covid-19 outbreak.

Part of this support was in the form of an extraordinary bond buying programme, which was intended to bring down long-term interest rates and catalyse greater borrowing and spending by both consumers and businesses. It is this plan that is now being wound down, albeit at a faster rate.

Alongside the bond-buying programme, the Fed had also slashed its funds target rate to zero. A faster unwinding of the bond-buying programme also means that interest rate hikes in the US are likely earlier than expected.

What are the concerns at this stage?

The Fed’s announcement has come amid criticism that the US central bank has fallen behind the curve on inflation.

The announcements effectively mean that the Fed will accelerate the tapering of its bond purchases, scaling back by $30 billion a month instead of the $15 billion pace that it had announced in November.

This opens up the possibility that policymakers could raise the Fed funds rate from its current range of 0% to 0.25% as early as in the first half of 2022.

The US central bank is currently buying $90 billion a month in bonds, down from $120 billion in October, and has been reducing those purchases by $15 billion a month.

People walk by an electronic stock board of a securities firm in Tokyo, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. (AP)

But in January, it will reduce those purchases by $30 billion, to $60 billion, and will be on track to end them altogether in March, Powell had said at a briefing in December.

Like other central banks such as the Reserve Bank of India, as the US Fed conducts monetary policy, it influences employment and inflation primarily by using policy tools to control the availability and cost of credit in the economy.

The Fed’s primary tool of monetary policy is the federal funds rate, changes in which influence other interest rates — which in turn influence borrowing costs for households and businesses, as well as broader financial conditions.

Additionally, the bond-buying programme, also known as quantitative easing, was put in place in early 2020 as an extraordinary measure to help the financial markets and the economy counter the impact of the pandemic.

This bond buying is an unconventional monetary policy tool (that was deployed during the global financial crisis as well), using which the central bank purchases longer-term securities from the open market in order to increase the money supply and incentivise lending and investment.

Buying these securities augments the supply of new money in the economy, and ends up dampening interest rates, while also expanding the central bank’s balance sheet.

The tapering of the bond buying plans now signals a move towards policy normalisation, and a progressive reversal of the interest rate trajectory in the economy.

How do rate cycles work?

When interest rates go up in an economy, it becomes more expensive to borrow; so households are less inclined to buy goods and services, and businesses have a disincentive to borrow funds to expand, buy equipment or to invest in new projects.

A subsequent lowering of demand for goods and services ends up depressing wages and other costs, in turn bringing runaway inflation under control. Even though the linkages of monetary policy to inflation and employment are not direct or immediate, monetary policy is a key factor in tackling runaway prices.

Theoretically, a signal to hike policy rates in the US should be a negative for emerging market economies, especially from a debt market perspective.

Emerging economies such as India tend to have higher inflation and, therefore, higher interest rates than in developed countries. As a result, investors, including Foreign Portfolio Investors, tend to borrow in the US at lower interest rates in dollar terms, and invest that money in the bonds of countries such as India in rupee terms to earn a higher rate of interest.

What will be the impact on other markets, including India?

A hike in rates in the US could have a three-pronged impact.

When the Fed raises its policy rates, the difference between the interest rates of the two countries narrows, thus making countries such as India less attractive for the currency carry trade.

A high rate signal by the Fed would also mean a lower impetus to growth in the US, which could be yet negative news for global growth, especially when China is reeling under the impact of a real estate crisis.

Higher returns in the US debt markets could also trigger a churn in emerging market equities, tempering foreign investor enthusiasm.

There is also a potential impact on currency markets, stemming from outflows of funds.

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