Federal Emergency 50 BP Rate Cut

In a remarkable show of force, the US Federal Reserve jumped the gun on its regularly scheduled meeting on March 18 and cut the target overnight fed funds rate by a full 50 basis points (bps) to 1%-to-1.25%. This now stands well below the Bank of Canada’s target rate of 1.75% and may well force the Bank’s hand to cut rates when it meets tomorrow, possibly even by 50 bps.

The Fed has not cut rates outside of its normal cycle of meetings since October 8, 2008, as the collapse of Lehman Brothers roiled financial markets. Such moves are rare, but not unprecedented.

The BoC is conflicted, in that such a dramatic rate cut would fuel household borrowing and the housing market, which the Bank considers to be robust enough.

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC, the Fed’s policymaking group) released the following statement: “The fundamentals of the U.S. economy remain strong. However, the coronavirus poses evolving risks to economic activity. In light of these risks and in support of achieving its maximum employment and price stability goals, the Federal Open Market Committee decided today to lower the target range for the federal funds rate by 1/2 percentage point, to 1 to 1‑1/4 percent. The Committee is closely monitoring developments and their implications for the economic outlook and will use its tools and act as appropriate to support the economy.”

In an 11 AM (ET) news conference, Chairman Powell said the broader spread of the virus poses an evolving risk to the economy that required immediate action. The FOMC judged the risk to the economy had worsened. The Fed acted unilaterally, in contrast to the coordinated central bank move taken during the financial crisis in 2008.

However, the Fed is in active discussion with other central banks around the world, and the European Central Bank indicated earlier today that they would take any necessary actions. Central banks in the euro-area and Japan have less scope to follow with rates already in negative territory.

Governor Carney said earlier today that the Bank of England would take steps needed to battle the virus shock. Carney hinted at the complexity of dealing with the trauma for central banks in assessing whether the impact falls on demand — which they have more capacity to address — or supply — which is harder to for central banks to treat.

G-7 finance chiefs and central bankers are scheduled to have a rare conference call today.

With election tensions running strong in the US–after all, today is Super Tuesday–it’s easy to imagine that this move by the Fed is as much political as economic. It comes amid public pressure for a rate cut by President Trump. Moreover, following today’s dramatic move, the president called for more, demanding in a tweet that the Fed “must further ease and, most importantly, come into line with other countries/competitors. We are not playing on a level field. Not fair to USA.”

Politicizing the Fed is dangerous and reduces the global credibility of the US central bank.

Stock markets around the world reversed some of today’s earlier losses on the news. The US stock markets opened today with a significant selloff following a rally yesterday. Bond yields continued to decline on the news.

Bottom Line for Canada: The key government of Canada 5-year bond yield has fallen sharply today to 0.925% and falling at the time of this writing. The 5-year yield was 1.04% before the Fed’s announcement. The Bank of Canada will likely cut overnight rates tomorrow for the first time since October 2018–but by how much? I would guess by 25 bps given Poloz’s concern about household debt.

French translation of this email will be available by 5pm ET March 5.

La traduction de ce courriel sera disponible d’ici 17 heures, le 5 mars.

Dr. Sherry Cooper
Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centres
drcooper@dominionlending.ca