One year into its inflation fight, the Fed faces a murky future
Banking sector turmoil upends Fed rate hike expectations
The Federal Reserve launched its war against inflation exactly one year ago to the day, kicking off the most aggressive interest rate hike campaign since the 1980s as it rushed to cool the economy.
In the time since March, 16, 2022, the U.S. central bank has lifted the federal funds rate eight times, underscoring just how serious policymakers are about tackling the inflation crisis. The increases put the key benchmark federal funds rate at a range of 4.75% to 5%, the highest since before the 2008 financial crisis.
The ninth increase is just around the corner, with Chairman Jerome Powell suggesting last week the Fed may need to raise rates higher than previously anticipated and pick up the pace of increases amid signs of broadening inflationary pressures within the economy.
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The hawkish commentary prompted investors to reevaluate their expectations for the meeting, with many ramping up the odds that the Fed approves a half percentage point hike during its March 21-22 meeting.
But Wall Street no longer sees that as a possibility after the stunning implosion of Silicon Valley Bank on Friday roiled global markets and triggered fears of a broader financial meltdown.
Silicon Valley Bank collapsed after a liquidity crunch, forcing a government takeover and raising questions over the fate of nearly $175 billion in customer deposits.
It marked the largest U.S. bank failure since the global financial crisis in 2008, and rising interest rates played a pivotal role in SVB's collapse, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
"The problems with the tech sector aren’t at the heart of the problems at this bank," Yellen said Sunday in an interview with CBS’ "Face the Nation."
SVB COLLAPSE THROWS FED RATE-HIKE DECISION NEXT WEEK INTO UNCERTAINTY
That's because SVB, which largely catered to tech companies, venture capital firms and high net worth individuals, saw a huge boom in deposits during the pandemic, with its assets surging from $56 billion in June 2018 to $212 billion in March 2023. The bank responded by investing a large chunk of that cash into long-term U.S. Treasury bonds and other mortgage-backed securities.
That strategy backfired when the Fed started rapidly raising interest rates and the value of those securities tumbled.
That coincided with a decline in available funding for startups, which started drawing down more of their money to cover their expenses, forcing the lender to sell part of its bond holds at a steep $1.8 billion loss. When depositors realized that SVB was in a precarious financial situation, a bank run ensued.
The bank's collapse, coupled with another failure at Signature Bank and turmoil at Swiss lender Credit Suisse, drastically altered rate hike bets on Wall Street.
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While problems at the European lender appear to be unrelated to SVB, the back-to-back issues sparked fresh fears over the vulnerability of the banking sector in the era of high interest rates. Swiss regulators stepped in on Wednesday afternoon to announce they would provide liquidity to Credit Suisse if necessary.
Investors remain evenly divided over whether the Fed will pause its rate hike cycle next week or approve a 25 basis point increase, according to data from the CME Group's FedWatch tool, which tracks trading. But they are in wide agreement that policymakers will cut rates later this year amid the bank sector fiasco.
Pricing in futures markets suggests the central bank will trim rates throughout the year, shaving a full percentage point from a peak of 4.75% to 5% by the end of 2023.
"The easing of recent inflationary pressures, combined with concerns about the banking industry, finally give the Fed reason to discuss a possible end to their tightening cycle at next week’s meeting," said John Lynch, chief investment officer for Comerica Wealth Management.
Still, new data released Tuesday morning revealed that inflation remains uncomfortably high. The Labor Department said the consumer price index, a broad measure of the price for everyday goods, including gasoline, groceries and rents, rose 0.4% in February from the previous month. Prices climbed 6% on an annual basis.
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Although it marked the slowest annual inflation rate since September 2021, the gauge remains about three times higher than the pre-pandemic average, underscoring the persistent financial burden placed on millions of U.S. households by high prices.
"The Federal Reserve is going to have to pick its poison: tolerate some inflation for a bit to see if its current series of rate hikes takes hold and pause or keep hiking and deal with the financial instability caused by their own policy decisions," said Jamie Cox, a managing partner for Harris Financial Group.