Feeling ignored, Fed jolts markets to prime them for lift-off

Thu Nov 5, 2015 1:56pm EST
 
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By Jonathan Spicer, Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider

NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When the U.S. Federal Reserve tweaked its policy statement last week and put a December rate rise squarely back in play, it took a calculated gamble that reaching for an old and controversial policy tool would get financial markets' attention.

That gamble was to specifically reference the next policy meeting as a date of a possible lift-off, and it had the desired effect: investors quickly rolled back bets that rates would stay near zero until next year.

But interviews with current and former Fed officials, and with those close to policymakers, show the decision to use what is called calendar guidance in central bank parlance and what some described as a "hammer" did not come easy. Some officials felt that even mentioning a date in the context of a potential policy change would be taken not as a contingent expectation but as a promise that would be painful to break.

The last time the Fed flagged its next meeting for possible action was in 1999, as JPMorgan economist Michael Feroli pointed out. It resorted to calendar-based commitments of ultra-easy policy during the global financial crisis and recession, but ended that practice three years ago.

Yet Fed Chair Janet Yellen and her deputies got so frustrated that investors virtually ignored their message that a rate rise before the year end was probable that they decided last month it was a risk worth taking, the interviews show.

As a result, futures markets are now giving slightly better-than-even odds that rates will rise from near zero next month, compared with mid-October when the odds were less than 30 percent. In contrast, economists polled by Reuters have been leaning towards a December rate hike even before the Fed's last meeting.

(Graphic: market rate expectations: reut.rs/20v61Ut)

Last week's communication gambit, one of Yellen's biggest in nearly two years as Fed chief, suggests the central bank still considers a modest rate rise this year as its base scenario.   Continued...

 
The Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington September 16 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque