HSH.com on the latest move by the Federal Reserve

The close of the March 2021 FOMC meeting brought no surprises for financial markets or investors. However, the Fed did acknowledge that while the economic picture has brightened a bit "The path of the economy will depend significantly on the course of the virus, including progress on vaccinations. The ongoing public health crisis continues to weigh on economic activity, employment, and inflation, and poses considerable risks to the economic outlook."

Beacuase of this, "The Federal Reserve is committed to using its full range of tools to support the U.S. economy in this challenging time, thereby promoting its maximum employment and price stability goals".

There were just a few subtle changes in the Fed's official assessment of the current economic climate, which remains generally downbeat, although perhaps slightly less so. "The COVID-19 pandemic is causing tremendous human and economic hardship across the United States and around the world. Following a moderation in the pace of the recovery, indicators of economic activity and employment have turned up recently, although the sectors most adversely affected by the pandemic remain weak. Inflation continues to run below 2 percent. Overall financial conditions remain accommodative, in part reflecting policy measures to support the economy and the flow of credit to U.S. households and businesses."

The statement which closed the March meeting contained no reference to the recent run-up in long-term interest rates, market concerns about the potential for firmer inflation, the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill's effect on growth or any inkling that the Fed might consider changing its mix of bond purchases to try to damp further increases in interest rates. For any clues about these, we'll likely need to wait until the minutes of the meeting are released some three weeks from now.

There was also no additional clarity regarding how the Fed will manage its new policy of allowing inflation to run hot for a while if it had previously run too cool. Although the core Personal Consumption Expenditures the Fed uses to track inflation are still meaningfully below its 2% target, price pressures have been warming now for months and will continue to firm for at least a while. As they do, the Fed will be under greater pressure to reveal how it intends to manage this new policy style.

In recent weeks, Fed officials have essentially revealed that they won't consider changing interest rate policies until the economy is near full employment as measured by a range of observations, that core PCE inflation is holding at or above a 2% annual level and seems likely to hold there, and that longer-range inflation expectations remain tethered near that 2% core PCE rate. By the Fed's own assessments, "substantial further progress" will need to be made toward its twin goals of stable prices and full employment before it will consider throttling back monetary policy.

Currently, "The Committee expects to maintain an accommodative stance of monetary policy until these outcomes [maximum employment and average 2% core inflation] are achieved. The Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and expects it will be appropriate to maintain this target range until labor market conditions have reached levels consistent with the Committee's assessments of maximum employment and inflation has risen to 2 percent and is on track to moderately exceed 2 percent for some time."

The Fed also re-committed to its QE-style bond-buying program, noting "... the Federal Reserve will continue to increase its holdings of Treasury securities by at least $80 billion per month and of agency mortgage-backed securities by at least $40 billion per month until substantial further progress has been made toward the Committee's maximum employment and price stability goals." It is expected that at some point the Fed will announce a series of steps to wind down bond buying, including reducing the levels of purchases while recycling inbound proceeds, allowing its mortgage holding to run off over time and so forth, much as it did when it was winding down previous QE programs. As they do, this would signal the markets that lift in the federal funds rate would be coming.

This FOMC meeting featured an updated Summary of Economic Projections (SEP) or so-called "dot plots" that reveal Fed members' thinking or outlooks with regard to growth, inflation, unemployment and the expected level of the federal funds rate over a range of time periods. Collectively, for 2021, expectations for economic growth were moved significantly higher as compared to the December 2020 assessment. Members think that GDP growth for the year will run at about a 6.5% level, up from a forecast of 4.2% just three months ago. At the same time, the unemployment rate is expected to fall to 4.5% this year, down from an expected 5% at the last release, and core PCE will run 2.2% -- a level above the Fed's speed limit -- and also a 0.4% bump from what they expected for this year as 2020 came to a close. Looking ahead to 2022, growth and inflation was expected to be a bit stronger, while inflation was expected to be a bit lower.

The latest SEP still shows no expectation of a change in short-term interest rates this year, but the chances of a move in '22 and moreso in '23 were evident. In December, just one lone Fed member (of 17) thought there would be a need to increase rates in 2022; this has now risen to 4 members. In December, the 2023 outlook suggested 5 of 17 thought there would be at least one rate hike two years hence; that figure has now increased to 7, with six expecting two or more increases rates by that time. If the economy revs up this year as expected, we think these numbers will continue to grow, and that bond buying could be started to be wound down perhaps as early as later this year, with a first rate hike perhaps mid-late 2022. Only time will tell, of course, and a given the nature of the virus, a lot could change between now and then.

The next updated SEP will come at the close of the June meeting.

As we wrote in the March 12 MarketTrends newsletter (sign up for email here, "All the pieces are now put in place for an economic surge in 2021. No, there's no immediate change today, but with the Federal Reserve committed to "all-in" policy for an indefinite period of time, decreasing restrictions on social and economic activity as the virus comes to heel and now a fresh $1.9 trillion blast of cash across the economy, it won't be long until the economy will be running hot."

Interest rates are firming on this outlook and the prospects for rising price pressures, something the Fed has characterized as "transitory" and a situation they have been hoping to achieve for some time with little success. If "all-in" monetary policy and a cumulative $5 trillion in stimulus in less than a year's time (with a range of additional spending perhaps to come) can't jack up growth and price pressures, it's not exactly clear what can. Investors are rightfully concerned about prices; yields on fixed-income investments are very low, and could be easily wiped out if inflation only runs at historically very mild levels. More good news about the economy amid what is expected to be rising price levels for a time will likely keep upward pressure on interest rates in general and mortgage rates in specific.

The next scheduled FOMC meeting will occur on April 27-28, 2021.

What is the federal funds rate?

The federal funds rate is an intrabank, overnight lending rate. The Federal Reserve increases or decreases this so-called "target rate" when it wants to cool or spur economic growth.

The last Fed move on March 15, 2020 was the fifth decrease in the funds rate since 2008, when the Fed last moved the rate to nearly zero. Before the pandemic outbreak, three quarter-point cuts in the key overnight lending rate were characterized by Fed Chairman Powell as a "mid-cycle adjustment", with the first of the total of five reductions coming in July 2019 and later accompanied by two additional "insurance" cuts in the federal funds rate. These moves were intended to offset the effects of a "trade war" between the U.S. and China and other nations. After the last of the three moves in October 2019. the Fed said that it expected to hold rates level for the foreseeable future. This of course began to change as the coronavirus pandemic increasingly disrupted economic activity, when the Fed added a half-point and then full-point cut in rates in short succession in March 2020.

By the Fed 's recent thinking, the long-run "neutral" rate for the federal funds may be as low as 2.5 percent, a level well below what has long been considered to be "normal" levels. As such, even if rates do rise over time, they may not get close to historic "normal" levels anytime soon.

The Fed can either establish a range for the federal funds rate, or may express a single value.

Related content: Federal Funds Rate - Graph and Table of Values

How does the Federal Reserve affect mortgage rates?

Historically, the Federal Reserve has only had an indirect impact on most mortgage rates, especially fixed-rate mortgages. That changed back in 2008, when the central bank began directly buying Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS) and financing bonds offered by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This "liquefied" mortgage markets, giving investors a ready place to sell their holdings as needed, helping to drive down mortgage rates.

After the program of MBS and debt accumulation by the Fed ended, they were still "recycling" inbound proceeds from maturing and refinanced mortgages to purchase replacement bonds for a number of years. This kept their holdings level and provided a steady presence in the mortgage market, which helped to keep mortgage rates steady.

In June 2017, the Fed announced that the process of reducing its so-called "balance sheet" (holdings of Treasuries and MBS) would start in October 2017. In this gradual process, the Fed will trim back the amount of reinvestment it is making in steps until it eventually is actively retiring sizable pieces of its holdings. When the program was announced, the Fed held about $2.46 trillion in Treasuries and about $1.78 trillion in mortgage-related debt. It had been reducing holdings at a set amount and was on a long-run pace of "autopilot" reductions as recently as December 2018.

In 2019, the Fed decided to begin winding down its balance-sheet-reduction program with a termination date of October, but as of August 2019 decided to stop reducing its holdings altogether, ending the program two months early. As the total amount of balance sheet runoff was fairly small, the Fed will be left with a huge set of investment holdings, presently comprised of about $2.08 trillion in Treasuries and about $1.52 trillion in mortgage-related debt. Starting in August 2019, all inbound proceeds from maturing investments were being used to purchase more Treasury securities of various maturities to roughly mimic the overall balance of holdings by investors.

As well, up to $20 billion each month of proceeds from maturing mortgage holdings (mostly from early prepayments due to refinancing) were also to be invested in Treasuries; any redemption over that amount will be used to purchase more agency-backed MBS. Ultimately, the Fed wishes to have a balance sheet comprised solely of Treasuries, but changing the mix of holdings from mortgages to Treasuries as mortgages are repaid will take many years.

In response to turbulent market conditions from the coronavirus pandemic, the Fed re-started QE-style purchases of Mortgage Backed Securities in March 2020, so not only did the slow process of converting MBS holdings to Treasuries come to a halt, the Fed is again actively buying up new MBS, expanding their mortgage holdings for at least a time. The current rate of outright purchases is $40 billion per month, and inbound proceeds from principal repayments on holdings and refinancings are also being reinvested. Since the Fed restarted their MBS purchasing program again in March 2020, it had by mid-March added about $766 billion of them to its balance sheet with total holdings of MBS now topping $2.1 trillion dollars.

The Fed is also again buying Treasury securities across the term spectrum at a rate of $80 billion per month. Any purchases of 10-year debt will help produce downward pressure on the yields that most influence fixed mortgage rates.

What is the effect of the Fed's actions on mortgage rates?

For this new cycle, more important than any change in the overnight intrabank lending rate is that the Federal Reserve is again increasing its holdings of Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS) and Treasuries. Having an active buyer in the market who will purchase these investments regardless of yield will help to keep mortgage rates more steady and likely at lower rates than would otherwise be the case if just private investors were the only market participants.

With mortgage rates recently and repeatedly hitting new "all-time" record lows there has been a surge in refinancing activity, so there will likely be a lot of new and lower-yielding bonds for the Fed to absorb as we move deeper into 2021 and beyond. Of late, firming rates will temper supplies of MBS to a degree, but there will be plenty of Treasury debt for the Fed to absorb.

The Fed has a massive portfolio of these investments and as they mature or have been paid off (by refinancing) the central bank had been re-investing the inbound funds into more purchases (reinvestment), keeping its portfolio at a constant size. The new actions means that holdings will again be expanding, and while this is a stabilizing factor for the market, the prospects for inflation and continued economic expansion will play a greater role in dictating how interest rates will move.

What the Fed has to say about the future - how quickly or slowly it intends to raise rates or lower rates in 2021 and beyond - will also determine if mortgage rates will rise, and by how much. At the moment, and given the Fed's new long-term policy framework, the path for future changes in the federal funds rate is uncertain, but the current expectation is that it may be a year or more before the Fed again considers lifting the federal funds rate, if then. With rates pegged near zero again, monetary policy looking forward may look a lot like that we saw at times in the early to mid stages of the record-long economic expansion, which is to say on hold for an extended period.

HSH.com Federal Reserve Policy Tracking Graph

Does a change in the federal funds influence other loan rates?

Although it is an important indicator, the federal funds rate is an interest rate for a very short-term (overnight) loan. This rate does have some influence over a bank's so-called cost of funds, and changes in this cost of funds can translate into higher (or lower) interest rates on both deposits and loans. The effect is most clearly seen in the prices of shorter-term loans, including auto, personal loans and even the initial interest rate on some Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs).

However, a change in the overnight rate generally has little to do with long-term mortgage rates (30-year, 15-year, etc.), which are influenced by other factors. These notably include economic growth and inflation, but also include the whims of investors, too. For more on how mortgage rates are set by the market, see "What moves mortgage rates? (The Basics)."

Does the federal funds rate affect mortgage rates?

Whenever the Fed makes a change to policy, we are asked the question "Does the federal funds rate affect mortgage rates?"

Just to be clear, the short answer is "no," as you can see in the linked chart.

That said, the federal funds rate is raised or lowered by the Fed in response to changing economic conditions, and long-term fixed mortgage rates do of course respond to those conditions, and often well in advance of any change in the funds rate. For example, even though the Fed was still holding the funds rate steady in autumn 2016, fixed mortgage rates rose by better than three quarters of a percentage point amid growing economic strength and a change in investor sentiment about future growth and tax policies during the period.

What does the federal funds rate directly affect?

When the funds rate does move, it does directly affect certain other financial products. The prime rate tends to move in lock step with the federal funds rate and so affects the rates on certain products like Home Equity Lines of Credit (HELOCs), residential construction loans, some credit cards and things like business loans. All will generally see fairly immediate changes in their offered interest rates, usually of the same size as the change in the prime rate or pretty close to it. For consumers or businesses with outstanding lines of credit or credit cards, the change generally will occur over one to three billing cycles.

Related content: Fed Funds vs. Prime Rate and Mortgage Rates

After a change to fed funds, how soon will other interest rates rise or fall?

Changes to the fed funds rate can take a long time to work their way fully throughout the economy, with the effects of a change not completely realized for six months or even longer.

Often more important than any single change to the funds rate is how the Federal Reserve characterizes its expectations for the economy and future Fed policy. If the Fed says (or if the market believes) that the Fed will be aggressively lifting rates in the near future, market interest rates will rise more quickly; conversely, if they indicate that a long, flat trajectory for rates is in the offing, mortgage and other loan rates will only rise gradually, if at all. For updates and details about the economy and changes to mortgage rates, read or subscribe to HSH's MarketTrends newsletter.

Can a higher federal funds rate actually cause lower mortgage rates?

Yes. At some point in the cycle, the Federal Reserve will have lifted interest rates to a point where inflation and the economy will be expected to cool. We saw this as recently as 2018; after the ninth increase in the federal funds rate over a little more than a two-year period, economic growth began to stall, inflation pressures waned, and mortgage rates retreated by more than a full percentage point.

As the market starts to anticipate this economic slowing, long-term interest rates may actually start to fall even though the Fed may still be raising short-term rates. Long-term rates fall in anticipation of the beginnings of a cycle of reductions in the fed funds rate, and the cycle comes full circle. For more information on this, Fed policy and how it affects mortgage rates, see our analysis of Federal Reserve Policy and Mortgage Rate Cycles.

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