LONDON – The US Federal Reserve is almost certain to start raising interest rates when the policy-setting Federal Open Markets Committee next meets, on December 16. How worried should businesses, investors, and policymakers around the world be about the end of near-zero interest rates and the start of the first monetary-tightening cycle since 2004-2008?
Janet Yellen, the Fed chair, has repeatedly said that the impending sequence of rate hikes will be much slower than previous monetary cycles, and predicts that it will end at a lower peak level. While central bankers cannot always be trusted when they make such promises, since their jobs often require them deliberately to mislead investors, there are good reasons to believe that the Fed’s commitment to “lower for longer” interest rates is sincere.
The Fed’s overriding objective is to lift inflation and ensure that it remains above 2%. To do this, Yellen will have to keep interest rates very low, even after inflation starts rising, just as her predecessor Paul Volcker had to keep interest rates in the 1980s very high, even after inflation started falling. This policy reversal follows logically from the inversion of central banks’ objectives, both in America and around the world, since the 2008 crisis.
In the 1980s, Volcker’s historic responsibility was to reduce inflation and prevent it from ever rising again to dangerously high levels. Today, Yellen’s historic responsibility is to increase inflation and prevent it from ever falling again to dangerously low levels.