Last week, the Federal Reserve announced that it would increase the Fed Funds rate by 0.25%. While the increase was small and the overall rate still remains low, by historical standards, concerns about the implications to the stock market surfaced almost immediately.
While, at first sight, this seems like unmitigated bad news - higher interest rates, after all, hurt stock prices - the effects of central bank interest rate policies on equity values is a little more ambiguous. There are several forces that come into play:
a. The Interest rate effect: Did the Fed raise interest rates last week? Not really. First, the only rate that the Fed has direct control over is the Fed Funds rate, i.e., the rate at which banks borrow from the Fed for emergency short term funding, a very small proportion of overall loans. Second, while it is true that the Fed's actions can affect market interest rates, the effect is more at the short end of the term structure than the long end. Thus, an expansionary central bank can push short term rates down but has relatively little influence over long term rates. That is also the reason why yield curves can become downward sloping, when central banks adopt restrictive monetary policies. In both valuation and corporate finance, it is the long term interest rate that determines discount rates and value.
b. The Inflation effect: Monetarists have long argued that the primary job of a central bank is to keep the currency from being debased, by holding inflation in check. Building on that theme, it has also been shown fairly conclusively that the biggest factor driving long term interest rates is expected inflation. Thus, a central bank that raises short term rates may be viewed by markets as fighting inflation, which can cause long term interest rates to fall contemporaneously.
c. The Economic Growth effect: For better or worse, central banks have also been assigned the role of custodians of economic growth. Thus, central bankers have to weigh the inflation fears against the real growth consequences, when raising or lowering rates. Markets therefore view the central bank's final actions as signals of what the central bank thinks about future economic growth. Thus, it is argued that a central bank that raises rates will do so only because it has information that leads it to believe that economic growth is strong enough to withstand the rate increase. Ironically, a rate increase can then be viewed as good news about future economic growth.
So, what do I think will happen to stock prices if central banks raise interest rates? Rather than give you the classic, "It depends ..." response, let me take a stand.
- If the central bank is viewed by markets as informed, independent and credible, a rate increase should be good news for markets; the real growth effect should dominate the effect on short term rates.
- If central banks are viewed as weak and/or uninformed, their actions will have little effects on markets, in the most benign case, and have negative effects, in other cases. As an example of the former, think of Japan in the 1990s, where the central bank was viewed as ineffectual. As an example of the latter, think of almost any Latin American country's central bank in the 1980s.
The bottom line. It is in every economy's best interests to have a central bank that is viewed as strong and effective, since the actions of the bank may be the last, best defense against economic meltdowns. Unfortunately, central banks become easy scapegoats for politicians, when economies stumble. Take the president of Argentina, Christina Kirchner, who recently fired the Argentine central banker (after repeatedly misfiring):
Count me among those who will not be investing in Argentine companies in the near future. And how about the US? Ben Bernanke, the Fed Chair, was made to jump through hoops by senators, before they voted on renewing his chairmanship. Not surprisingly, they wanted him to promise that he would put employment above inflation in his decision making..... Poltical short sightedness knows no borders.