September 26, 5:00 pm EST
The Fed moved again today on rates, as the market expected. This is the eighth quarter point hike in this post-QE normalization on rates. And this now puts the Fed Funds rate at the range of 2%-2.25%.
Now, the markets will pick apart the statement and endlessly parse the Fed Chair’s words in the press conference. But let’s step back and take a look at the impact of these Fed hikes thus far.
We know the economy is running at the best pace since before the financial crisis. We know that the jobless rate is near record lows. We know that consumer credit worthiness is at record levels. This has all happened, despite the Fed’s rate hikes.
What about debt service coverage? As rates are moving higher, are consumers showing signs of getting squeezed?
If we look back at the height of the credit bubble in 2008 (just prior to its burst), 13.22% of household income was going to service debt–within that number, 7.2% of household income was going to service mortgage debt. What about now? Debt service is now 10.2% of household income. And the mortgage piece is down to just 4.4%. This is the result of six years of zero interest rates, a massive QE program (which included the Fed’s purchase of mortgage bonds), and a government program that subsidized banks to refi high interest rate mortgages.
So the big question is, how has the Fed’s exit of QE effected the consumers ability to service debt? Are higher rates hurting?
Well, they started hiking rates in the fourth quarter of 2015. Total debt service at that time was 10.1%. That’s virtually unchanged from today. And the mortgage piece was 4.5%. That’s actually a touch higher than today.
Bottom line: The Fed’s normalization on rates has not damaged the consumer, nor has it killed the housing market.
But that’s only because the yield curve has been flattening. That is, longer term market interest rates have been steady. That means the benchmark rate from which consumer and mortgage rates have been set, has been steady. And those longer term rates have been steady, in large part, because Europe and Japan have remained in QE mode (buying global assets, which includes our Treasurys).
With that, while most have been watching the Fed closely for how it’s delicately handling the exit of QE, the more important spot to watch will be how Europe and Japan manage their exits. Hopefully, the U.S. economy is hot enough, at that point, to withstand the move in longer term U.S. rates that will come with the end of global QE.
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