Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Fed Rate Cut: How Much?

By Greg Donaldson and Mike Hull

As we returned from the Labor Day weekend, there are still some in the financial media that are saying that the current state of the economy does not warrant a cut in the Fed Funds Rate.

We don't agree and history shows that the Fed has cut rates in the past, even when the economy was not in or near recession.

The chart at the right shows the yields on 90-day T-Bills (blue line), which are backed by the full faith and credit of the US Government; the Fed Funds Target Rate(green line), the rate paid and guaranteed by banks; and the difference between the two at the bottom (red line).

The top part of the chart shows that for most of time over the last 20 years the interest rates on 90-day T-Bills and fed funds have stayed very close together. This would make sense. One strong bank borrowing from another would not expect to pay a rate of interest much higher than the government would have to pay for a short-term loan.

However, when fears of recession or the strength of the banking system is called into question, the spread between fed funds and T-Bills widens. Why, because big investors decide they feel safer in government backed T-Bills than they do in the banks and they bid T-Bill yields lower.

To see this, let's focus on the red line at the bottom of the chart, which shows the difference between the Fed's Funds Target Rate and the yield on a 90-day T-Bill.

Each time the yield differential has been at least one percent, the Fed has cut rates within a short time. In addition, you will note that T-bills have always led fed funds lower.

There have only been 5 times in the last 20 years when the yield differential between T-bills and fed funds have been approximately one percent: immediately after the stock market crash of 1987, during the Saving and Loan Crisis in 1989, during the Asian Flu of 1998, in mid 2000, when it was clear that the Tech bubble was popping, and today.

The chart is a month-end chart so it does not show every day for the last 20 years, but it is remarkable that on a month-end basis that the events of September 2001, did not produce a one percent spread.

These one percent spikes have occurred coincident with an extreme crisis of confidence in the financial markets, not necessarily in the economy. The US economy was fine in 1987, 1998, and 2000 at the times of the spikes.

Thus, the arguments today that the Fed won't cut the fed funds rate because the US economy is not close to recession is beside the point. The point is the Fed has a financial crisis to deal with and history shows that the way they deal with these types of events is to cut rates. They can always raise rates later if the crisis passes without a sharp fall off in the economy.

The arrow at the far right of the chart shows that the recent spike is higher than at any time going back to 1989. In our minds, the question is not if the Fed will cut rates, but how much? One of us thinks .25%, the other .50%.