Bruce Bartlett

Last week the Federal Reserve again raised the federal funds interest rate, which now stands at 3.5 percent. When the Fed began tightening monetary policy in June 2004, this rate stood at just 1 percent.

 Thus far, there is little evidence that the Fed's actions have had any effect either on financial markets or the real economy. Market interest rates, especially for mortgages, remain low, and economic growth continues at a steady, if unspectacular, pace. Given the Fed's actions, economists would have expected interest rates to be higher and growth to be slower. The Fed calls the lack of impact a "conundrum."

 As a consequence, some analysts are saying that the Fed will have to raise the fed funds rate higher than it originally planned. A majority of forecasters in the Wall Street Journal's latest survey expect it to hit 4.5 percent before the Fed stops. Economists at Goldman Sachs are predicting five percent.

 The problem is that just because the Fed is raising rates gradually doesn't mean that the impact will be gradual. It could come quite abruptly. Think of a balloon. Whether you blow it up slowly or fast, at some point, it is still going to burst. The same thing oftentimes occurs with monetary policy. It may appear that nothing is going on for a long time and then, suddenly, something dramatic happens to show that monetary policy is working as expected.

 Another problem is that the Fed's policies always take time before they impact, and these lags vary. So it's very difficult to know precisely when the impact will be felt.

 Generally speaking, when the Fed tightens, the impact on the economy is symmetrical. That is, whatever sectors went up the most during the easing phase will fall the hardest when it tightens. Stocks went up most during the easing cycle from 1995 to 1998 and fell the most after the Fed tightened in 1999 and 2000.

 In the latest easing phase, which began in January 2001, the principal impact has been on housing. Over the last five years, housing prices nationally have risen by just over 50 percent. But in some areas, prices have risen much more. Those in California and the District of Columbia are up over 100 percent. Twelve other states have seen increases of over 60 percent. All except Nevada border either the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.


Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

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