The Fed Holds Steady Before the Election

At its November meeting, the U.S. central bank has voted not to raise interest rates, although many believe a hike in December is likely.

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen during her speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston on October 14, 2016
U.S. Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen during her speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston on October 14, 2016 (Mary Schwalm / Reuters)

Should this election need more intrigue, two important economic indicators are on this week’s calendar. The first came Wednesday afternoon: The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC) has voted to not to raise interest rates at its November meeting. The committee’s two-day meeting concluded with Fed officials voting to keep the U.S. central bank’s target range for the federal funds rate at 0.25 to 0.5 percent. The second will come on Friday when the monthly jobs report is released.

In a statement regarding the decision to keep interest rates unchanged, the FOMC emphasized—as it has in recent meetings—the U.S. economy’s solid job growth paired with the lack of inflation. Therefore, “the Committee judges that the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has continued to strengthen but decided, for the time being, to wait for some further evidence of continued progress toward its objectives.”

The Fed’s decision on Wednesday to maintain the federal funds rate was widely expected by economists and analysts, as rate hikes before an election are historically rare.

“The Fed is usually reluctant to do anything before an election,” says Allan Meltzer, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University and an expert on the history of the Federal Reserve. “There was an exception in 1980, in advance of the Reagan-Carter election when the inflation rate was very high and Paul Volcker was the Chairman. But most [Fed] Chairman are not as bold as Volcker, and are reluctant to do things before an election.”

The Fed has had its share of mentions in this year’s presidential election. Donald Trump expressed in the September presidential debate that he believed the Fed to be keeping interest rates low in order to boost the U.S. economy for political reasons, a sentiment that was rejected by Fed watchers and criticized by Hillary Clinton.

History aside, Peter Conti-Brown, a professor at Wharton who studies the Federal Reserve and the author of the recent book The Power and Independence of the Federal Reserve, says that the election probably had little to do with today’s decision. Donald Trump is well wide of the mark when he accuses the Fed of playing politics with its interest-rate decisions. The Fed has given absolutely no indication that the decision to raise interest rates, whenever it will come, has anything to do with the election,” says Conti-Brown. “Instead, it has stated again and again that the central bankers on the Federal Open Market Committee will vote according to what they think the economy needs for the Fed to meet its mandates of price stability and maximum employment.”

The Fed has yet to raise interest rates in 2016, but there are signs that the Fed is signaling a December rate hike due the FOMC omitting language from previous statements that it expects inflation to remain low in this month’s decision (the latest reading puts U.S. inflation at 1.5 percent, below the Fed’s 2 percent target) .

While Chairwoman Janet Yellen did not hint at a rate hike during her speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston mid-October, minutes from the Fed’s September meeting noted that a rate hike could come “relatively soon” if the U.S. labor market continues to strengthen, meaning that Friday’s jobs report will surely be closely watched by the FOMC and Fed watchers alike. The FOMC’s final meeting of the year is on December 13 and 14.