As everybody knew it would, the Federal Reserve Board announced today it is bringing its target federal funds rate up to a range of 2 percent to 2.25 percent—in shorter form, to about 2.25 percent. That is still a very low rate, especially translated, as is economically required, to a real interest rate—that is, one adjusted for inflation. The new Federal Reserve target rate, in real terms, is more or less zero.
To adjust for inflation, you have to choose a measure of inflation. The Consumer Price Index over the 12 months through August 2018 rose 2.7 percent. Thus, using the CPI, the new inflation-adjusted Fed Funds target is 2.25 percent minus 2.7 percent, or a real rate of -0.45 percent.
Suppose as an inflation measure you like the Personal Consumption Expenditures Index (PCE) instead. Over the 12 months ended in July 2018, it went up 2.3 percent, so 2.25 percent is still a slightly negative real interest rate.
But the Fed likes to use the “core” PCE, which excludes food and energy prices. This is especially good for people don’t have to buy things to eat or gas for their car. Core PCE rose 2 percent for the same period. That would result in a slightly positive real interest rate of 2.25 percent, minus 2 percent, or 0.25 percent.
Averaging these three estimates together gives a real fed funds target rate of negative 0.08 percent—close enough to zero for monetary policy work, given its vast uncertainties.
Zero is a remarkably low real fed funds rate nine years after the end of the last recession, nine years after the end of the 2007-2009 financial crisis, in a time of strong economic growth and, more to the point, in the midst of a remarkable asset price inflation in houses, commercial real estate and securities.
Nobody, including the Federal Reserve, knows what real interest rates should be, but there is little doubt that a free market, without central bank manipulation, would by now have set them higher.
When and how will the current asset price inflation end? Nobody, including the Fed, knows that either.
Image by Triff