The Fed threw in a change-up today, instead of its usual fastball. While the Fed funds futures market was pricing in a 94 percent probability of a 100 basis point cut today, the FOMC instead settled on a less aggressive 75 basis point cut in the Fed funds rate. Today’s action brings the Fed Funds target rate down to 2.25 percent, three percentage points lower than where it was last August. The real Fed funds rate, which adjusts for current inflation, is at a negative 1.75 percent — a highly accommodative monetary policy stance. The Fed concurrently cut the discount rate 75 basis points, bringing that borrowing rate down to 2.5 percent.
The Fed wanted to remind the market today that they are in charge of monetary policy and not the Fed funds futures market. The Fed is subtly trying to reassert itself and disabuse the markets that whatever it asks for it gets.
It is also clear that there is increasing concern among some on the FOMC that free-wheeling rate cuts are creating a significant problem with the Fed goal of anchoring inflation expectations. There were two votes against. Both Plosser and Fisher wanted less aggressive action. Every time the Fed cuts rates the U.S. dollar takes it on the chin, threatening higher import and price inflation. Moreover, record oil and gold prices seem at odds with a deflationary spiral scenario that would warrant a one-percentage point or lower Fed funds rate.
The Fed is hoping that its efforts to restore market liquidity and ease the credit crunch through more direct measures such as the TAF, TSLF and Discount window will mitigate the need for the Fed to continue to pull its most powerful, but bluntest monetary policy leaver, the Fed funds target rate.
Bottom-line: the Fed is still open to further rate cuts if the economic and credit outlook continues to deteriorate, but we are much closer to an end point on Fed easing than we were at the start of the year. We expect the Fed to cut again in April, bringing the Fed funds target rate to 2.0 percent, though beyond that there will need to be more signs that the economic and financial downturn is still intensifying and that unemployment is rising rapidly.