A sign of economic strength or a risk? Try both
WASHINGTON» This week’s dizzying selloffs in the financial markets have been a rude reminder that the U.S. economy is no longer relying on ultralow interest rates to fuel growth.
Borrowing costs are rising for companies, homebuyers and the U.S. government — all of which could eventually dampen economic growth.
Yet the climb in interest rates also reflects an economy that’s still managing to accelerate on the energy of an expansion in its 10th year — the secondlongest such streak on record. The pace of growth has picked up this year in part because of President Donald Trump’s tax cuts, which have also increased the federal budget deficit and contributed to the higher rates now spreading through the economy.
For the moment, Trump is content to blame the Federal Reserve and its gradual rate hikes for the stock market fall. Thursday, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 2.1 percent — or 546 points, after having plunged 831 points Wednesday.
Fed officials last month raised the key shortterm rate for the third time this year, and a fourth hike is likely before year’s end.
Jerome Powell, whom Trump elevated to the Fed’s chairmanship, is trying to keep inflation in check and unwind the central bank’s programs that were launched to rescue the economy after the 2008 financial crisis. Much of the Fed’s efforts after the crisis depended on keeping borrowing rates, for consumers and businesses, at record lows for seven years.
But Trump now sees the Fed’s gradual return of rates to normal levels as disrupting the stock market and an economic boom that he argues would otherwise endure for many years.
“I think the Fed is out of control,” the president told reporters Thursday. “I think the Fed is far too stringent, and they’re making a mistake and it’s not right. Despite that, we’re doing very well, but it’s not necessary in my opinion. And I think I know about it better than they do.”
Economists generally view the recent rate increases as a natural response to improved growth. The unemployment rate has reached a 49year low of 3.7 percent. Most private forecasts expect the economy to expand roughly 3 percent this year, up from 2.3 percent a year ago.
Against that backdrop, a rise in borrowing rates may not be cause for alarm.
“Higher interest rates need not be a threat — they can and should be taken as a sign of economic strength,” said Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist for Northern Trust.
With growth accelerating, demand for credit typically also increases. And that additional demand for debt generally causes borrowing rates to climb.
Some of that greater demand has come from the federal government as the budget deficit has jumped $232 billion so far this fiscal year, largely on the need to finance the president’s tax cuts. The rate charged on 10year U.S. Treasury notes has surged from 2.46 percent at the start of 2018 to nearly 3.16 percent.
“The big difference between now and a year ago is tax reform,” Tannenbaum said.