The Outlook for Interest Rates, the Economy and Inflation in the U.S. and Among the Other Major World Economies

The U.S. Fed will probably start shrinking its balance sheet in September and the ECB is likely to taper its asset purchases in the first half of 2018. What is the outlook for interest rates, the economy and inflation in the U.S. and among the other major world economies?

Beginning with the United States, data indicates that the Fed’s balances sheet may remain substantially higher for longer and that interest rates may remain substantially lower than would have been considered normal before the crisis.

In the twenty years ending 2007, Fed funds averaged 4.85%¹. In September 2007, the Fed started cutting interest rates until it reached 0.25% in December 2008¹. The Fed wasn’t ready to cut further into negative rate territory which left them with an economy needing stimulus while their preferred tool was exhausted. Instead, the Fed embarked in Quantitative Easing (QE), large-scale asset purchases, which dramatically expanded its balance sheet.

Though the Fed has not added to its balance sheet since 2014, it has been reinvesting the interest and principal payments received to maintain the balance sheet at a steady level. Asset purchases as a monetary policy tool is new in the U.S. and allowing the assets to mature may have an unknown affect on the economy.

There is a risk of tipping back into recession if the unwinding begins when growth is too weak. The Fed’s normalization statement pointed out that while it expects to use the federal funds rate to fight recessions, the FOMC may restart reinvestment in the event of substantial interest rate cuts.

After the Fed reduces its balance sheet, rates would likely remain low. The U.S. trend growth rate is believed to be about 2% per year. The FOMC’s poll of its own voting members expects longer-run growth to be in the range of 1.8-2.0%, which is in line with the trend growth rate. For comparison, for 20 years ending 2017, GDP annual growth averaged about 3%¹.

As we discussed in our White Paper 3, the expectation for lower average growth in the years ahead is due to low productivity growth and the aging demographic. The productivity slowdown is a new phenomenon that is not entirely understood and it is possible that productivity acceleration could result in a pick-up in growth eventually. For now, slower trend growth will contribute to lower interest rates in the years ahead than in the period before the crisis. The aging U.S. population is also a factor as increased savings make their way into the fixed income market.



1.  A Mixed World Economic Outlook

Advanced economies grew fairly rapidly in the second quarter, with GDP growth likely to have rebounded strongly in the U.S., Japan and the UK and to have accelerated a little in the euro-zone. This in turn has led to a further reduction in the aggregate unemployment rate in advanced economies. However, there is little sign that wage pressures are rising.

While Japan and the UK saw downward revisions to Q1 growth, the economic growth in the euro-zone was revised up. The euro-zone has now recorded three consecutive quarters of accelerating GDP growth. The recovery in advanced economies as a whole has been driven largely by consumption. Investment spending has also recovered in nearly all major advanced economies, but particularly in the U.S. and euro-zone. Industrial production has generally expanded at a decent pace in recent months. Among the emerging economies, China growth edged up in May for the first time this year.

A synchronized shift in monetary policy swept across bond markets in June with hawkish central bank chatter pushing bond yields higher across Canada and Europe. These moves spilled over to the U.S. bond market despite the slow-moving Republican agenda, soft economic results, and muted pricing pressures.

Global monetary conditions remain loose despite continued tightening by the U.S. Fed. Policy rates in major advanced economies are still exceptionally low. Policymakers in the ECB, Bank of England and Bank of Canada made comments prompting a sell-off in bond markets towards the end of the quarter, but the increase in bond yields was small compared to the move after the election of Donald Trump.

Growth in lending to firms has been steady in the euro-zone, at about 2% year over year². However, there are big differences within the region with lending still contracting in Italy, reflecting the weakness of its economic recovery and the country’s troubled banks.

The Bank of Canada shows confidence in the Canadian economy by raising rates by 0.25% to 0.75% in July and signalling further removal of policy stimulus in the future. Canada has been a leader of major changes in the global monetary system in the past. In 2015, its rate cuts helped kick off a global trend that saw countries accounting for almost half of global output including China, Denmark, Sweden, Indonesia and Australia. Canada is in the midst of one of its strongest growth spurts since the 2008-2009 recession, with the expansion accelerating to over 3% over the past four quarters³.

The Bank of Canada highlighted in its statement that the recent economic data has bolstered their confidence in the “economic outlook for above-potential growth and the absorption of excess capacity in the economy.⁴” Low borrowing costs are fuelling housing prices and household debt is hovering at record levels. Similar to the United States, the labour market has been strong, with the unemployment rate at the lowest since before the recession. Though inflation has not increased, the Bank determined that recent softness in inflation is only temporary and that it will rebound.

The collapse of oil prices that trimmed $60 billion annually off Canada’s national income prevented the Bank from following the Fed in raising rates beginning 2015³.

The Canadian economy appears to be on the verge of a slowdown due to housing-related weaknesses, which is reinforced by higher household borrowing costs. The surging Canadian dollar over the past month as the U.S. dollar weakened would also add to the shift to tightening. The same questions around stagnant inflation apply in Canada and elsewhere.


2.  U.S. Growth Slows:  Delayed Fiscal Stimulus and America Alone

Sentiment in the United States economy contradicts recent economic data. While businesses and consumers are positive about the future, economic activity has not been coming in strong. Several surveys report that chief executive officers are highly optimistic, however, M&A activity is at its lowest level since 2013, and has fallen 40% in the past two years⁵.

Share buybacks has slowed and capacity usage has fallen, both indications that CEOs are less confident in the future of their businesses. The University of Michigan’s Surveys of Consumers show confidence at the highest levels since before the crisis. Meanwhile, retail sales fell in May and have been relatively lackluster for the year so far⁵.

The drop back in core PCE inflation to a 17-month low of 1.4% in May has led to expectations that the Fed will hold on raising interest rates⁶.

The Fed’s 2% inflation target looks more like a ceiling since core PCE inflation has only exceeded that level 24% of the time since 1995⁶. Core inflation has been above target only 6% of the time since the target was adopted in 2012⁶.

As we discussed last quarter, a fundamental shift in trade policy over the next four years is being proposed by the new administration to stem the further outsourcing of manufacturing production and employment abroad this year.  The reality is that only a small fraction of the five million lost jobs could conceivably return since China’s shift 15 years ago to largest importer to the WTO. Additionally, assuming the U.S. becomes more aggressive in initiating disputes at the WTO, other countries could retaliate by bringing their own claims. Meanwhile, the boost to the domestic manufacturing sector should be minimal if these new trade policies trigger a further appreciation in the dollar.


3.  Global Low Yield Environment Ends Unevenly

The U.S. Fed will probably start shrinking its balance sheet in September and the ECB is likely to taper its asset purchases in the first half of 2018. The U.S. reflation trade has been delayed by muted wage growth and uncertainty about fiscal policy, but the prospect of ECB normalization is now pushing global yields higher.

The biggest impact of globalisation on interest rates driven by inflation has come through the deflationary effect on traded goods prices, particularly durable goods prices, which have been declining since the late 1990s.

The flattening of the Phillips curve is usually attributed to globalisation, well-anchored inflation expectations, the decline in union power and increases in labour flexibility. This is a global phenomenon. In addition to the United States, low unemployment rates in the UK, Germany, Japan and Canada have failed to spark any meaningful acceleration in either wage growth or core price inflation. Globalisation has undoubtedly played a key role, particularly the entry of China into the global economy.

While China has been an integral part of the global trading system for more than a decade now, the rate of decline in goods prices shows no signs of easing. As a result of globalisation, goods prices now tend to be driven by global economic factors, as much as domestic U.S. factors, which contributed to the flattening of the Phillips curve. However, globalisation and technical progress have had a much smaller impact on services prices.

The rate of service price inflation fell sharply during the 1980s and early 1990s, but that was mainly due to better anchoring of inflation expectations, as the Fed built its credibility as an inflation-fighting central bank. Since the mid-1990s, services price inflation has been more stable. Most recently, housing and other services inflation has been accelerating as expected given the gradual elimination of slack in the labour market. However, health care price inflation has continued to trend lower, which accounts for almost 20% of the core PCE⁶. This explains why core PCE inflation appears to have reacted less to shifts in the output gap in recent years.


4.  U.S. Dollar Depreciation

The US dollar has continued to depreciate on a trade-weighted basis in recent weeks, despite another increase in the federal funds rate. It is now around 5% lower than its value at the turn of the year. In June, it fell against all major advanced-economy currencies except the yen. We expect this to continue as the implications of the United States no longer leading in coordinating global trade and climate change, and as fiscal stimulus is delayed due to political headwinds are factored into the currency price.

With these themes in mind, we will continue to monitor economic data for traditional slow growth signals from employment, consumer spending, business sentiment, Fed policy, the yield curve, inflation, and global economics.

Frame Global Asset Management considers these trends and factors them into our outlook for the economy in our twelve-month forward period. We look back to periods of similar economic behavior and use this information to predict the future behavior of the asset classes that we consider. Our investment process allows us to adapt for non-traditional monetary policy and other exogenous variables.


Deborah Frame, CFA, MBA

President and Chief Investment Officer

July 15, 2017


¹ ETF, Fed Outlook H2 2017, July 7, 2017.

² Capital Economics. Global Economics Chart Book. July 6, 2017.

³ Your Guide to the Bank of Canada’s Bellwether Rate Decision. July 12, 2017.

⁴ Capital Economics. Canada Rapid Response. July 12, 2017.

⁵ Why Americans Feel So Good About a Mediocre Economy. June 26, 2017.

⁶ Capital Economics. US Economics Weekly. July 7, 2017.