Is the Fed stalling due to US elections?

An employee at GE Aviation's manufacturing facility in Batesville, Mississippi, in the United States. Those who say that the Federal Reserve's monetary policy decisions are based on data rather than politics point to the recent lacklustre figures in
An employee at GE Aviation's manufacturing facility in Batesville, Mississippi, in the United States. Those who say that the Federal Reserve's monetary policy decisions are based on data rather than politics point to the recent lacklustre figures in employment, manufacturing and retail sales.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Some argue that a decision on raising interest rates will come only after Nov 8 poll

While cooler economic data in recent weeks has cut the odds of a United States interest rate hike on Thursday, some observers see the presidential campaign as playing a bigger role in staying the Federal Reserve's hand.

Fed officials have said that politics are not a consideration in policy decisions, but this factor cannot be ignored.

Ms Selena Ling, head of treasury research and strategy at OCBC Bank, cited US election risks among factors that make a September rate hike less likely.

"It would be risky to hike if they had to reverse shortly afterwards if financial markets react adversely post-elections," she said.

Other factors include "tightening monetary conditions... and data suggesting softening momentum amid sluggish global growth", she added.

There are already rumblings that the US Fed may not be all that apolitical. The central bank this week will be releasing fresh "dot plot" projections that may show a possible quarter-point rate hike by the end of the year.

WAITING FOR DATA

Whether the Fed wants to admit or not, the presidential election is a factor in their decision, because they don't want to be seen reacting before the data becomes supportive of a rate hike.

HEAD OF A RESEARCH FIRM, on why the US Fed may be delaying a rate hike.

Such a forecast may be interpreted as a sign that a hike is coming at the Fed's December meeting, instead of at the Nov 1-2 meeting, which comes a week before the US presidential election on Nov 8.

But, having the dot plot signal a December move is fraught with political overtones. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump had earlier argued that the Fed has created a "false economy" by keeping borrowing costs low in order to help President Barack Obama.

Still, those that maintain the Fed is "data-dependent", cite lacklustre August jobs, manufacturing and retail sales figures.

Bloomberg said the probability of a September rise has dropped to around 20 per cent from 40 per cent three weeks ago. The chance of a December hike stands at 55 per cent.

"Whether the Fed wants to admit or not, the presidential election is a factor in their decision, because they don't want to be seen reacting before the data becomes supportive of a rate hike," according to the head of a research firm.

Financial market volatility is typically high in September and October, and even more so, in an election year.

"A rate hike in September may create unnecessary volatility that will not be friendly for the US elections," he said.

Market backlash from a surprise hike this week could be "violent and choppy" because players have essentially priced out that possibility, Ms Ling said.

But Barclays and BNP Paribas, two of the Fed's 23 preferred bond trading partners, have taken a contrarian stance, saying traders have discounted the intent to hike too steeply. It is the first time more than one dealer has gone against the consensus during the week of a policy meeting since last September, according to Bloomberg.

UOB senior economist Alvin Liew argued that the Nov 8 poll is unlikely to compromise the Fed's decision making: "In itself, the election shouldn't be a determining factor on how the Fed makes monetary policy decisions."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2016, with the headline 'Is the Fed stalling due to US elections?'. Print Edition | Subscribe