On January 22nd, the Federal Reserve cut their most important interest rate for the fourth time in the past six months, in an attempt to stem the widespread sentiment that the US is in, or headed for recession. Their cut comes at a strange time, because they were rumored, nay, expected, to deliver the cut at their monthly rate-setting meeting next week. But after stock and commodity markets suffered their largest losses in one day since the September 11th attacks, it seemed as though no amount of scheduled economic treatment would be able to rally confidence to a more optimistic level, especially given that the so-called "economic stimulus package" introduced by the White House in recent days actually made the problem much worse.
Thus the Fed needed to act decisively, and so, for the first time since 1982, cut their most important rate by three-quarters of a percentage point, signifying how seriously they take the crisis. Yet markets, especially in the US, barely hiccuped upon the announcement: After a brief rally, Asian and European stock indexes closed down by several percentage points, and in the United States no change was seen. Might the Fed be able to wield the same power they used to over economic growth? It seems that an answer to that question is less than forthcoming, but certainly the Fed cut is a very good thing taking into account the historical role of interest rate cuts in similar times. As recently as 2001, with the dot-com bubble rapidly deflating, the mere adjustment of rates to moderately lower values brought the recession down to a dull roar.
The biggest difference between that scenario, or for that matter any other previous economic downturn, is that now governments worldwide stand to lose something in a US recession, whereas even in the early 2000's foreign investment had not accelerated to its current breakneck pace. Even in the event of further cuts, credit markets are not required to pass on the savings they make onto their customers, which means that we won't necessarily be able to ever feel the effects of the most recent cut unless, as individual consumers, are able to borrow money more easily, an unlikely possibility under current conditions because, as a whole, Americans spend more than they can save.
Throughout history, Americans have saved around %5 of their income, a lofty amount by current standards. This has allowed the US to run a giant deficit with far more stability than it should, because individual liquidity helps to guard against smaller economic bumps that could spiral out of control. A strong possibility is that the Federal Reserve never really had as much power as it would have us believe. As consumer confidence continues to crumble, it doesn't seem to make as big a difference to regular Americans that they can borrow more. They may not want to. And, even if this is an inevitable and beneficial adjustment, a lot of people will lose out in other countries who would normally be unaffected. Fortunately, the Fed isn't accountable to them quite as directly. As long as consumer spending slows, a Fed cut can only do a limited, and possibly impotent, amount of good for the larger economy.
Ki Gray is a real estate agent in Austin. His site focuses on Austin real estate and has a Austin MLS search on his site. He also blogs about Austin on his Austin real estate blog.
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