As expected, the Federal Reserve raised short-term interest rates at the last monetary policy meeting of 2016. The second rate increase of the cycle occurred one full year after the first, despite expectations from officials themselves that there would be four quarter-point hikes throughout the year.
Given the Fed’s somewhat shaky predictive abilities, it’s hard to guess what the central bank will do in 2017. As it turns out, economists are not much better at predicting outcomes than political observers are at predicting election results.
In his book “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t,” Nate Silver interviewed Jan Hatzius, the chief economist of Goldman Sachs, to find out why so many economic predictions miss the mark.
“Nobody has a clue,” Hatzius told Silver. “It’s hugely difficult to forecast the business cycle. Understanding an organism as complex as the economy is very hard.” The reason it is so hard is that statistics can be noisy, the economy is always changing and the data on which forecasts are based can be flawed.
That said, here’s what we know right now. As we start 2017, the economic expansion will reach the ripe old age of 90 months, longer than the post-World War II average of nearly 60 months but still not in the top three on record — that honor goes to 1991-2001 (120 months), 1961-69 (103 months) and 1982-90 (92 months). The sheer length of the period may be why, before the election, a Wall Street Journal survey of economists put their odds of a recession occurring within the next four years at nearly 60 percent.
But that was before the president-elect indicated there would likely be a new boost to the economy in the form of infrastructure spending, tax cuts and deregulation. While gross domestic product growth averaged a fairly subdued 2 percent to 2.25 percent during the recovery thus far, the potential Trump actions have prompted economists to increase their estimates for 2017 to 2.5 to 3 percent.
A faster-growing economy could mean that the Federal Reserve will finally see its much desired pickup in prices. Thus, most economists believe that the central bank is gearing up for a series of rate hikes in 2017. The estimates range from two to four quarter-point advances.
If the Fed goes as slowly as anticipated and the economy improves, the stock market should be fine. In the past, shares of banks, energy, industrials and technology do well amid rising rates. But if the central bank ends up raising rates faster than expected, it could hurt prices. Conversely, when interest rates rise, bond prices fall, and in this cycle it could be even more painful because the slow growth recovery lulled many bond investors into complacency. As always, balanced investors should be fine, as long as they don’t mess with their overall strategy too much.
For all of Trump’s complaining about Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen’s Fed keeping rates too low for too long, the biggest risk to the current expansion and stock market rally would be if the Fed were to move more quickly than anticipated, potentially sparking a recession.
Fear not! The Fed is probably willing to err on the side of keeping rates low and getting behind on inflation, rather than increasing too quickly and snuffing out the recovery. Ironically, although Trump took aim at Yellen for not raising rates faster, she may in fact be the ideal Fed chair to keep the economic expansion/stock market rally alive in 2017.
Jill Schlesinger, a certified financial planner, is a CBS News business analyst. She welcomes emailed comments and questions.