Let’s chat about interest rates, shall we? It seems the burning question isn’t how much higher they’ll climb but how long they’ll stick around at these nosebleed heights before they take a tumble.
At its latest huddle, which wrapped up on November 1st, the Fed kept its benchmark interest rate snug between 5.25% and 5.5% for the second time running, after a streak of 11 hikes. (Just so you know, when the Fed’s benchmark goes up, so do the rates for average Joes and Janes—like the 30-year mortgage rate, which recently hit a whopping 8%.)
Now, Jerome Powell, the head honcho at the Fed, hasn’t ruled out another rate hike down the road, but the word on the street is that if it happens, it’ll be a little one. Some folks are even betting the Fed’s done with hikes for now. There’s a growing hunch among the number-crunchers that we’ve hit the peak, or we’re darn close.
But when will rates start to slide? That’s where the crystal balls get a bit cloudy, mostly because the economic forecast is as clear as mud. Bond investors, the cautious bunch, are thinking it’ll be a longer wait than they first figured. Goldman Sachs is whispering to its clients that the Fed might not ease up on rates until the end of next year.
With the expectation that short-term rates will stay high for an extended period, bond investors are asking for higher yields to balance out the increased risk of holding onto long-term debt. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note took a leap to 5%, though it’s dipped a bit since.
Investors could be off the mark, of course, or they might have to change their tune as the economic winds shift. So, it’s worth peeking at what the Fed’s own policymakers are predicting.
We get a glimpse into their thinking with the “dot plot” that the Fed dishes out every quarter. This little chart shows where the 19 members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)—the folks who set the monetary mood music—think interest rates are headed for the next three years and beyond.
Of these 19, seven are bigwigs confirmed by the Senate to the Federal Reserve Board, and the rest are the head honchos of the 12 regional Federal Reserve banks. At any given meeting, only 12 of these 19 get to cast a vote—the seven board members and a rotating cast of five bank presidents (the New York chief always gets a say). But all 19 chime in at the meetings, and their rate forecasts are what make up the dot plot.
In the latest plot from September, 10 of the 19 are betting the benchmark rate will hover above 5% at the end of 2024, with 17 thinking it’ll be north of 4.5%. They’re bracing for rates to hang near where they are for at least another year.
By the tail end of 2025, a dozen of the committee members see the benchmark chilling in the 3s to low 4s range. It’s not until the end of 2026 that a majority are rooting for the 2s.
Now for a silver lining, especially if you’re in the farming or ranching biz or borrowing for your business: Just one of the FOMC members thinks the benchmark rate will stay above 5.5% for the next three years.
The big, hairy monster in the room is inflation. After the last meeting, Jerome Powell said the Fed won’t even think about rate cuts until inflation is well on its way back to 2%. And let’s be real—we’re not exactly breathing down 2%’s neck right now.
But hey, the FOMC could be off base too. These dots are pretty much educated guesses, and they tend to shift around. Even though these folks probably know a thing or two more than the average bear about this stuff, nobody’s got a perfect track record.
So, what could throw a wrench in the consensus and drag rates down sooner? A recession could do the trick. The Fed’s been trying to pull off a “soft landing” for the economy, but some are still bracing for a crash landing and a recession. If they’re right, the Fed would be under the gun to cut rates, especially if a recession cools down inflation. (A recession with stubborn inflation, though, would be a real headache for the Fed.)
There’s another scenario that could upset the apple cart, and it’s not a pretty one for borrowers: Inflation could jump again. More turmoil in the Middle East or Ukraine could send prices through the roof. Or if other unions start snagging big wage hikes like the Teamsters and Auto Workers did, inflation could get a second wind. (Though, to be fair, wage increases have been on the down-low lately.)
If inflation does make a comeback, all bets are off; the Fed would likely jack up rates again. But while that’s possible, it’s not the bet most are placing. For now, and probably for a bit longer, the real question isn’t about how high rates will go, but how long they’ll stay put.