Drought in Higher Rates May Be Over
The drought in higher interest rates may be nearing an end? Ever since the global financial crisis accelerated into full force in the fall of 2008, there were a constant flow of coordinated interest rate cuts triggered around the world with the aim of stimulating global GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and improving credit flow through the clogged financial pipes. Central banks across the world cut key benchmark interest rate levels and the impact of these reductions has a direct influence on what consumers pay for their financial products and services. More recently, we have begun to see the reversal of previous cuts with rate hikes witnessed in several international markets. Last week we saw Norway become the first western European country to raise rates, following an earlier October rate lift by Australia and another by Israel in August. For some countries, the sentiment has switched from global collapse fears to a stabilization posture coupled with future inflation concerns. In the U.S., the data has been more mixed (read article here) and the Federal Reserve has been clear on its intention to keep short-term rates at abnormally low levels for an extended period of time. That stance would likely change with evidence of inflationary pressures or improved job market conditions.
What Does This Mean for Consumers?
Prior to the financial crisis, credit availability flourished at affordably low rates. Now, with signs of a potential global recovery matched with regulatory overhauls, consumers may be impacted in several financial areas:
1) Credit Card Rates: Beyond regulatory changes in Washington (read more), the interest rate charged on unpaid credit card balances may be on the rise. When the Federal Reserve inevitably raises the targeted Federal Funds Rate (the interest rate for loans made between banks) from the current target rate range of 0.00% and 0.25%, this action will likely have direct upward pressure on consumer credit card rates. The associated increase in key benchmark rates such as the Prime Rate (the rate charged to a bank’s most creditworthy customers) and LIBOR (London Interbank Offer Rate) would result in higher monthly interest payments for consumers.
2) Other Consumer Loans: Many of the same forces impacting credit card rates will also impact other consumer loans, like home mortgages and auto loans. Pull out your loan documents – if you have floating or variable rate loans then you may be exposed to future hikes in interest rates.
3) Business Loans / Lines of Credit: Business owners -not just consumers – can also be impacted by rising rates. When the cost of funding goes up (.i.e., interest rates), the banks look to pass on those higher costs to the customer so the account profitability can be maintained.
4) Dollar & Import Prices: To the extent subsequent United States rate hikes lag other countries around the world, our dollar runs the risk of depreciating more in value (currency investors, all else equal, prefer currencies earning higher interest rates). A weaker dollar translates into foreign goods and services costing more. If international central banks continue to raise rates faster than the U.S., then imported good inflation could become a larger reality.
5) Hit to Bond Prices: Higher interest rates can also result in a negative hit to your bond portfolio. Higher duration bonds, those typically with longer maturities and lower relative coupon payments, are the most vulnerable to a rise in interest rates. Consider shortening the duration of your portfolio and even contemplate floating rate bonds.
Interest rates are the cost for borrowed money and even with the recent increase in consumers’ savings rate, consumers generally are still saddled with a lot of debt. Do yourself a favor and review any of your credit card agreements, loan documents, and bond portfolio so you will be prepared for any future interest rate increases. Shopping around for better rates and/or consolidating high interest rate debt into cheaper alternatives are good strategies as we face the inevitable end in the drought of higher global interest rates.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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