As inflation falls, corporate America won’t rush to pay the price

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during an event to celebrate the anniversary of his signing of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act legislation, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., August 16, 2023. 

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

In recent weeks, President Joe Biden has been doing everything he can to point the finger at big corporations for high prices.

“Too many things are unaffordable,” the president said.

“Stop the price gouging,” Biden said on another recent occasion.

The blame game may be good retail politics, and the president has announced some real actions to alleviate consumer financial stress, forgiving as much student debt on the margins as he can under the law, unveiling various plans to eliminate “junk fees,” and using new powers under the Inflation Reduction Act to bring down key drug prices.

Some recent research supports the case that corporations have taken more advantage of the current inflationary era than they really need to do. But amid the political pressure, don’t expect corporate America to be swayed.

As the Federal Reserve signals for the first time that it’s getting comfortable with the decline in inflation, and even short of declaring “mission accomplished” seemed to say this week it doesn’t wholly disagree with the market view that rates cuts are the next phase in its monetary policy, the one major force in the economy not talking about cuts in a major way is corporations.

That’s been on the mind of Fed presidents as the central bank contemplates a big shift. Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin, a former corporate sector CFO, recently told CNBC that one area he monitors and speaks to companies about is price setting. Companies won’t be giving up their power to raise prices “until they have to,” Barkin, who will be a voting member of the FOMC next year, said.

It’s been a hard-won advantage. Over the past two decades, price setters “have been beaten up,” Barkin said, by the combination of ecommerce, globalization, access to new supply and the power of big box retailers. “If you go back to 2018-2019, you had people who really weren’t into raising prices [as they] didn’t think they had the power to do it. I’m out there talking to price setters now and there are some who have taken a step back and said, ‘Okay, we’re on the backside of this,’ but I still talk [to others] who are looking to get more price.”

During an interview later in November with Barkin at CNBC’s CFO Council Summit in Washington, D.C., the subject came up again, and an informal poll of CFO Council members in the room on the subject of pricing plans for 2024 was taken. A majority said their companies would be raising prices next year; a minority said they would keep pricing the same; none said they would be lowering prices. 

“I’m looking for the point where they’re no longer taking outsized price increases because they’re worried the volume and the market won’t sustain it,” Barkin said.

That is happening in certain goods markets where the Covid outsized demand has waned, and as the pressures in the real estate market with high mortgage rates have cut down on purchases for the home. It’s also a function of a massive freight market recession, which has sharply lowered transportation costs for shippers after a period of huge contract rate increases during the pandemic boom. A recent decline in energy prices has also lessened input cost pressures.

Costco CFO Richard Galanti said after its earnings this week that inflation for the quarter just ended was in the 0% to 1% range. But the big moves were in the “big and bulky items,” like furniture sets due to lower freight costs year-over-year, as well as on “things like domestics,” he said. And what he called the “deflationary items” were steeply down in price, as much as 20% to 30%.

Toys are another example.

No one wants to be the first to cut prices

Overall, though, the economy is not headed for deflation, and the Fed’s stance this week may have given companies more room to keep prices where they want if real wage growth proves sustainable. Inflation is falling faster than wages,” said KMPG chief economist Diane Swonk. “That does not equate to deflation. The goal is to keep that trend going, so that consumers regain the purchasing power lost to inflation.”

But with any easing of rates, the central bank is “willing to throw the dice, and enable the economy to grow more rapidly rather than risk recession,” Swonk said. “That is a major shift from where we were a year ago. They knew that the decision to call an end to rate hikes would trigger financial markets to ease. That was like a stealth cut in rates. It will stimulate the economy. Improvements in inflation are expected to continue, but the pace at which price increases decelerate could slow.”

The recent tailwinds from a softer freight market may be near their end, too. A logistics CFO speaking on a CNBC CFO Council member call on Tuesday about the market outlook said that after one of the longest stretches in recent history for a freight recession, the trough may have been reached. “Truck rates may start bouncing off of a bottom here,” said the logistics CFO on the call, where chief financial officers are granted anonymity to speak freely.

While the Fed may get its wish of a “soft landing” for the economy, that doesn’t mean prices will land as softly for consumers, according to Marco Bertini, a professor of marketing at business school Esade who studies pricing strategy and pricing psychology. “Companies will do what they want and will never react at the speed you want them to, especially after they have been increasing prices,” Bertini said. “Why would I be the first to cut my margins when we just went through a period where we had the world’s best excuse [inflation] to recover margins?” he said.

At some point, companies will need to reassess pricing strategy, especially with margins more than recovered for many, and this period of rapid inflation in the U.S. doesn’t have a precedent for companies to use as a barometer of how to shift. “It’s uncharted territory for the U.S. market,” Bertini said.

That’s part of the reason why not one CFO raised their hand at the CNBC CFO Council Summit when asked if any were considering a price decrease for 2024.

“Imagine I am the first to say I am holding on prices, and make that known to customers? That’s how a price war starts and the competitive advantage from being the ‘good guy’ lasts two seconds,” Bertini said. “No one wants a race to the bottom. The gains over the past few years evaporate in a few months.”

Deflation versus slowing of price increases

There are some signs that the pricing conversation is starting to become more prevalent inside companies beyond the goods areas where demand has been hit hard. But recent declines in pricing don’t indicate that companies will continue in that direction across a broader array of products and services.

“The Fed doesn’t want to see deflation,” said one retail sector CFO on the recent CNBC CFO Council call. “They just want to see inflation cool. And they want to see us get to the point where we can’t raise prices anymore.”

While the CFO said there has been a “settling in the market in the last couple of months, I wouldn’t call it deflation.”

But he pointed to transportation costs as a deflationary force that is having an influence on importers, “a one-time kind of release of supply and demand imbalances … but it’s a price correction to me that is different than deflation. … I think we’ve kind of been through an interesting phase of price correction. But I’d say things are pretty stable from our perspective.”

Consumers have been 'as resilient as they could be,' says former Walmart U.S. CEO Bill Simon

In food distribution, costs for key commodities continue to experience deflation on a sequential basis. But consumers going out to eat won’t see that in the prices they pay.

“We’re in a period where restauranteurs have taken many prices up,” said another retail CFO on the call. “They’re seeing that deflation in their underlying ingredients, so they’re actually going to start seeing a little bit better performance in terms of their bottom line. Now that they’ve taken the prices up, we just don’t think they’re gonna take it down very quickly.”

The science of pricing, according to Bertini, dictates that as long as a company can point to an externality — in this case, higher input costs — the buyer ultimately accepts the situation, and price stickiness is the result.

But the current environment is edging into more of an “unstable equilibrium.”

“When inflation is in the public domain, it’s perfect to collaborate in a perfectly legal way to increase prices. Now the shocks are gone and costs slowly coming down, and the appetite to be the one to decrease prices and get market share gain is increasingly getting bigger,” he said. “But being the first will take some time, because they’re still enjoying it. … What it will take in most markets is a competitor who sees a clear path to getting lots of market share.”

When the party will end for corporations

This difficult balance is also coming during a period of time when the consumer has defied expectations of a slowdown in spending, making it harder for companies to pinpoint just how big the market opportunity really is. Retail sales, as an example, just came in much stronger than expected.

“We’re still trying to understand how strong November retail sales should have been relative to normal, and relative to what’s happened the last three years. It makes it hard,” the logistics CFO said on the recent CNBC CFO Council call.

The view from Costco CFO Galanti after its earnings this week is instructive. Speaking about food, he said it’s been a different story than with goods: “There hasn’t been significant price cuts passed on to the consumer yet.”

“There are a few things that are up and a few things are down, but no giant trend either way. Look, as you’ve known us for a long time, we want to be the first to lower prices. We’re out there pressing our vendors as we see different commodity components come down and certainly on the non-food side as we saw shipping costs come down, things like that. And so, probably a little more than less, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

If the period of price increases is to end, expect there to be a lag between that and other forces in the economy, such as the Fed, said Bertini. “Who wants to end the party early? They will want to see some really strong evidence that the party has ended.”

Another analogy from a CFO on the recent CNBC Council call may have put it best:

“We’re all a bunch of cars on a highway. You’ve got the customer, a retailer, you’ve got the manufacturer. Maybe you’ve got capital providers. And who hits the brakes first? Who wants to hit the brakes before the person in front of them hits the brakes?” 

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Falling oil prices is hurting energy names. But plenty of others stocks stand to gain

An oil rig in front of a sunset

Andrey Rudakov | Bloomberg | Getty Images

U.S. crude prices continued to fall Wednesday, settling below $70 per barrel for the first time since early July and at their lowest levels since June. That’s good news for the Federal Reserve in its battle against inflation. While the impact on oil and natural gas stocks has not been as cheery, companies across many other industries stand to gain.

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Fed holds rates steady, upgrades assessment of economic growth

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday again held benchmark interest rates steady amid a backdrop of a growing economy and labor market and inflation that is still well above the central bank’s target.

In a widely expected move, the Fed’s rate-setting group unanimously agreed to hold the key federal funds rate in a target range between 5.25%-5.5%, where it has been since July. This was the second consecutive meeting that the Federal Open Market Committee chose to hold, following a string of 11 rate hikes, including four in 2023.

The decision included an upgrade to the committee’s general assessment of the economy. Stocks rallied on the news, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average gaining 212 points on the session.

“The process of getting inflation sustainably down to 2% has a long way to go,” Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in remarks at a news conference. He stressed that the central bank hasn’t made any decisions yet for its December meeting, saying that “The committee will always do what it thinks is appropriate at the time.”

Powell added that the FOMC is not considering or even discussing rate reductions at this time.

He also said the risks around the Fed doing too much or too little to fight inflation have become more balanced.

“This signals that while there is a potential risk for the Fed to do more, the bar has become higher for rate hikes, and we are clearly seeing this play out with two consecutive meetings of no policy action from the Fed,” said Charlie Ripley, senior investment strategist at Allianz Investment Management.

Economy has ‘moderated’

The post-meeting statement had indicated that “economic activity expanded at a strong pace in the third quarter,” compared with the September statement that said the economy had expanded at a “solid pace.” The statement also noted that employment gains “have moderated since earlier in the year but remain strong.”

Gross domestic product expanded at a 4.9% annualized rate in the third quarter, stronger than even elevated expectations. Nonfarm payrolls growth totaled 336,000 in September, well ahead of the Wall Street outlook.

There were few other changes to the statement, other than a notation that both financial and credit conditions had tightened. The addition of “financial” to the phrase followed a surge in Treasury yields that has caused concern on Wall Street. The statement continued to note that the committee is still “determining the extent of additional policy firming” that it may need to achieve its goals. “The Committee will continue to assess additional information and its implications for monetary policy,” the statement said.

Wednesday’s decision to stay put comes with inflation slowing from its rapid pace of 2022 and a labor market that has been surprisingly resilient despite all the interest rate hikes. The increases have been targeted at easing economic growth and bringing a supply and demand mismatch in the labor market back into balance. There were 1.5 available jobs for every available worker in September, according to Labor Department data released earlier Wednesday.

Core inflation is currently running at 3.7% on an annual basis, according to the latest personal consumption expenditures price index reading, which the Fed favors as an indicator for prices.

While that has decreased steadily this year, it is well above the Fed’s 2% annual target.

The post-meeting statement indicated that the Fed sees the economy holding strong despite the rate hikes, a position in itself that could prompt policymakers into a prolonged tightening stance.

In recent days, the “higher-for-longer” mantra has become a central theme for where the Fed is headed. While multiple officials have said they think rates can stay where they are as the Fed assesses the impact of the previous increases, virtually none have said they are considering cuts anytime soon. Market pricing indicates the first cut could come around June 2024, according to CME Group data.

Surging bond yields

The restrictive stance has been a factor in the surging bond yields. Treasury yields have risen to levels not seen since 2007, the earliest days of the financial crisis, as markets parse out what is ahead. Yields and prices move in opposite direction, so a rise in the former reflects waning investor appetite for Treasurys, generally considered the largest and most liquid market in the world.

The surge in yields is seen as a byproduct of multiple factors, including stronger-than-expected economic growth, stubbornly high inflation, a hawkish Fed and an elevated “term premium” for bond investors demanding higher yields in return for the risk of holding longer-duration fixed income.

There also are worries over Treasury issuance as the government looks to finance its massive debt load. The department this week said it will be auctioning off $776 billion of debt in the fourth quarter, starting with $112 billion across three auctions next week.

During a recent appearance in New York, Powell said he thinks the economy may have to slow further to bring down inflation. Most forecasters expect economic growth to tail off ahead.

A Treasury Department forecast released earlier this week indicated that the pace of growth likely will tumble to 0.7% in the fourth quarter and just 1% for the full year in 2024. Projections the Fed released in September put expected GDP growth at 1.5% in 2024.

In the wake of the Fed’s comments, the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow growth tracker slashed expectations for fourth-quarter GDP almost in half to 1.2% from 2.3%. The gauge takes in data on a real-time basis and adjusts its estimates with the latest information.

Whitney Watson, co-CIO of fixed income and liquidity solutions at Goldman Sachs Asset Management, said it’s likely the Fed will keep its policy unchanged into next year.

“There are risks in both directions,” Watson said. “The rise in inflation expectations, owing to higher gas prices, combined with strong economic activity, preserves the prospect of another rate hike. Conversely, a more pronounced economic slowdown caused by the growing impact of higher interest rates might accelerate the timeline for transitioning to rate cuts.”

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Getting to 2% inflation won’t be easy. This is what will need to happen, and it might not be pretty

A construction in a multifamily and single family residential housing complex is shown in the Rancho Penasquitos neighborhood, in San Diego, California, September 19, 2023.

Mike Blake | Reuters

In theory, getting inflation closer to the Federal Reserve’s 2% target doesn’t sound terribly difficult.

The main culprits are related to services and shelter costs, with many of the other components showing noticeable signs of easing. So targeting just two areas of the economy doesn’t seem like a gargantuan task compared to, say, the summer of 2022 when basically everything was going up.

In practice, though, it could be harder than it looks.

Prices in those two pivotal components have proven to be stickier than food and gas or even used and new cars, all of which tend to be cyclical as they rise and fall with the ebbs and flows of the broader economy.

Instead, getting better control of rents, medical care services and the like could take … well, you might not want to know.

“You need a recession,” said Steven Blitz, chief U.S. economist at GlobalData TS Lombard. “You’re not going to magically get down to 2%.”

Annual inflation as measured by the consumer price index fell to 3.7% in September, or 4.1% if you kick out volatile food and energy costs, the latter of which has been rising steadily of late. While both numbers are still well ahead of the Fed’s goal, they represent progress from the days when headline inflation was running north of 9%.

The CPI components, though, told of uneven progress, helped along by an easing in items such as used-vehicle prices and medical care services but hampered by sharp increases in shelter (7.2%) and services (5.7% excluding energy services).

Drilling down further, rent of shelter also rose 7.2%, rent of primary residence was up 7.4%, and owners’ equivalent rent, pivotal figures in the CPI computation that indicates what homeowners think they could get for their properties, increased 7.1%, including a 0.6% gain in September.

Without progress on those fronts, there’s little chance of the Fed achieving its goal anytime soon.

Uncertainty ahead

“The forces that are driving the disinflation among the various bits and micro pieces of the index eventually give way to the broader macro force, which is rising, which is above-trend growth and low unemployment,” Blitz said. “Eventually that will prevail until a recession comes in, and that’s it, there’s nothing really much more to say than that.”

On the bright side, Blitz is among those in the consensus view that see any recession being fairly shallow and short. And on the even brighter side, many Wall Street economists, Goldman Sachs among them, are coming around to the view that the much-anticipated recession may not even happen.

In the interim, though, uncertainty reigns.

“Sticky-price” inflation, a measure of things such as rents, various services and insurance costs, ran at a 5.1% pace in September, down a full percentage point from May, according to the Atlanta Fed. Flexible CPI, including food, energy, vehicle costs and apparel, ran at just a 1% rate. Both represent progress, but still not a goal achieved.

Markets are puzzling over what the central bank’s next step will be: Do policymakers slap on another rate hike for good measure before year-end, or do they simply stick to the relatively new higher-for-longer script as they watch the inflation dynamics unfold?

“Inflation that is stuck at 3.7%, coupled with the strong September employment report, could be enough to prompt the Fed to indeed go for one more rate hike this year,” said Lisa Sturtevant, chief economist for Bright MLS, a Maryland-based real estate services firm. “Housing is the key driver of the elevated inflation numbers.”

Higher interest rates’ biggest impact has been on the housing market in terms of sales and financing costs. Yet prices are still elevated, with concern that the high rates will deter construction of new apartments and keep supply constrained.

Those factors “will only lead to higher rental prices and worsening affordability conditions in the long run,” wrote Christopher Bruen, senior director of research at the National Multifamily Housing Council. “Rising rates threaten the strength of the broader job market and economy, which has not yet fully digested the rate hikes already enacted.”

Longer-run concerns

The notion that rate increases totaling 5.25 percentage points have yet to wind their way through the economy is one factor that could keep the Fed on hold.

That, however, goes back to the idea that the economy still needs to cool before the central bank can complete the final mile of its race to bring down inflation to the 2% target.

One positive in the Fed’s favor is that pandemic-related factors largely have washed out of the economy. But other factors linger.

“Pandemic-era effects have a natural gravitational pull and we’ve seen that take place over the course of the year,” said Marta Norton, chief investment officer for the Americas at Morningstar Wealth. “However, bringing inflation the remainder of the distance to the 2% target requires economic cooling, no easy feat, given fiscal easing, the strength of the consumer and the general financial health in the corporate sector.”

Fed officials expect the economy to slow this year, though they have backed off an earlier call for a mild recession.

Policymakers have been banking on the notion that when existing rental leases expire, they will be renegotiated at lower prices, bringing down shelter inflation. However, the rising shelter and owners’ equivalent rent numbers are running counter to that thinking even though so-called asking rent inflation is easing, said Stephen Juneau, U.S. economist at Bank of America.

“Therefore, we must wait for more data to see if this is just a blip or if there is something more fundamental driving the increase such as higher rent increases in larger cities offsetting softer increases in smaller cities,” Juneau said in a note to clients Thursday. He added that the CPI report “is a reminder that we do not have good historic examples to lean on” for long-term patterns in rent inflation.

Core service numbers show inflation is still relatively elevated, says Nationwide's Kathy Bostjancic

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Here’s what the Federal Reserve’s 25 basis point interest rate hike means for your money

The Federal Reserve raised the target federal funds rate for the eighth time in a row on Wednesday, in its continued effort to tame persistent inflation.

At its latest meeting, the central bank approved a more modest 0.25 percentage point increase after recent signs that inflationary pressures have started to cool.

“The easing of inflation pressures is evident, but this doesn’t mean the Federal Reserve’s job is done,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com. “There is still a long way to go to get to 2% inflation.”

What the federal funds rate means to you

The federal funds rate, which is set by the U.S. central bank, is the interest rate at which banks borrow and lend to one another overnight. Although that’s not the rate consumers pay, the Fed’s moves do affect the borrowing and saving rates consumers see every day.

This rate hike will correspond with a rise in the prime rate and immediately send financing costs higher for many forms of consumer borrowing — putting more pressure on households already under financial strain.

“Inflation has shredded household budgets and, in many cases, households have had to lean against credit cards to bridge the gap,” McBride said.

On the flip side, “with rates still rising and inflation now declining, it is the best of both worlds for savers,” he added.

How higher interest rates can affect your money

1. Your credit card rate will rise

Since most credit cards have a variable rate, there’s a direct connection to the Fed’s benchmark. As the federal funds rate rises, the prime rate does, as well, and your credit card rate follows suit within one or two billing cycles.

“Credit card interest rates are already as high as they’ve been in decades,” said Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at LendingTree. “While the Fed is taking its foot off the gas a bit when it comes to raising rates, credit card APRs almost certainly will keep climbing for at least the next few months, so it is important that cardholders continue to focus on knocking down their debt.”

Credit card annual percentage rates are now near 20%, on average, up from 16.3% a year ago, according to Bankrate. At the same time, more cardholders carry debt from month to month while paying sky-high interest charges — “that’s a bad combination,” McBride said.

At more than 19%, if you made minimum payments toward the average credit card balance — which is $5,474, according to TransUnion — it would take you almost 17 years to pay off the debt and cost you more than $7,528 in interest, Bankrate calculated.

Altogether, this rate hike will cost credit card users at least an additional $1.6 billion in interest charges in 2023, according to a separate analysis by WalletHub.

“A 0% balance transfer credit card remains one of the best weapons Americans have in the battle against credit card debt,” Schulz advised.

Otherwise, consumers should consolidate and pay off high-interest credit cards with a lower-interest personal loan, he said. “The rates on new personal loan offers have climbed recently as well, but if you have good credit, you may be able to find options that feature lower rates that what you currently have on your credit card.”

2. Mortgage rates will stay higher

Rates on 15-year and 30-year mortgages are fixed and tied to Treasury yields and the economy. As economic growth has slowed, these rates have started to come down but are still at a 10-year high, according to Jacob Channel, senior economist at LendingTree.

The average interest rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is now around 6.4% — up almost 3 full percentage points from 3.55% a year ago.

“Relatively high rates, combined with persistently high home prices, mean that buying a home is still a challenge for many,” Channel said.

This rate hike has increased the cost of new mortgages by around 10 basis points, which translates to roughly $9,360 over the lifetime of a 30-year loan, assuming the average home loan of $401,300, WalletHub found. A basis point is equal to 0.01 of a percentage point.

“We’re still a ways away from the housing market being truly affordable, even if it has recently become a bit less expensive,” Channel said.

Other home loans are more closely tied to the Fed’s actions. Adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs, and home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs, are pegged to the prime rate. Most ARMs adjust once a year, but a HELOC adjusts right away. Already, the average rate for a HELOC is up to 7.65% from 4.11% a year ago.

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3. Auto loans will get more expensive

Even though auto loans are fixed, payments are getting bigger because the price for all cars is rising along with the interest rates on new loans, so if you are planning to buy a car, you’ll shell out more in the months ahead.

The average interest rate on a five-year new car loan is currently 6.18%, up from 3.96% last year.

The Fed’s latest move could push up the average interest rate even higher, although consumers with higher credit scores may be able to secure better loan terms or look to some used car models for better deals.

Paying an annual percentage rate of 6% instead of 4% would cost consumers $2,672 more in interest over the course of a $40,000, 72-month car loan, according to data from Edmunds.

“The ever-increasing costs of financing remain a challenge,” said Ivan Drury, Edmunds’ director of insights.

4. Some student loans will get pricier

Federal student loan rates are also fixed, so most borrowers won’t be affected immediately. But if you are about to borrow money for college, the interest rate on federal student loans taken out for the 2022-23 academic year already rose to 4.99%, up from 3.73% last year and any loans disbursed after July 1 will likely be even higher.

If you have a private loan, those loans may be fixed or have a variable rate tied to the Libor, prime or T-bill rates, which means that as the central bank raises rates, borrowers will likely pay more in interest, although how much more will vary by the benchmark.

Currently, average private student loan fixed rates can range from just under 4% to almost 15%, according to Bankrate. As with auto loans, they also vary widely based on your credit score.

For now, anyone with existing federal education debt will benefit from rates at 0% until the payment pause ends, which the Education Department expects to happen sometime this year.

What savers should know about higher interest rates

The good news is that interest rates on savings accounts are finally higher after the recent run of rate hikes.

While the Fed has no direct influence on deposit rates, they tend to be correlated to changes in the target federal funds rate, and the savings account rates at some of the largest retail banks, which have been near rock bottom during most of the Covid pandemic, are currently up to 0.33%, on average.

Also, thanks, in part, to lower overhead expenses, top-yielding online savings account rates are as high as 4.35%, much higher than the average rate from a traditional, brick-and-mortar bank.

Rates on one-year certificates of deposit at online banks are even higher, now around 4.75%, according to DepositAccounts.com.

As the Fed continues its rate-hiking cycle, these yields will continue to rise, as well. However, you have to shop around to take advantage of them, according to Yiming Ma, an assistant finance professor at Columbia University Business School.

“If you haven’t already, it’s really important to benefit from the high interest environment by getting a higher return,” she said.

Still, because the inflation rate is now higher than all of these rates, any money in savings loses purchasing power over time. 

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Here’s what the Federal Reserve’s half-point rate hike means for you

The Federal Reserve raised its target federal funds rate by 0.5 percentage points at the end of its two-day meeting Wednesday in a continued effort to cool inflation.

Although this marks a more typical hike compared to the super-size 0.75 percentage point moves at each of the last four meetings, the central bank is far from finished, according to Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com.

“The months ahead will see the Fed raising interest rates at a more customary pace,” McBride said.

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The latest move is only one part of a rate-hiking cycle, which aims to bring down inflation without tipping the economy into a recession, as some feared would have happened already.

“I thought we would be in the midst of a recession at this point, and we’re not,” said Laura Veldkamp, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia University Business School.

“Every single time since World War II the Federal Reserve has acted to reduce inflation, unemployment has shot up, and we are not seeing that this time, and that’s what stands out,” she said. “I couldn’t really imagine a better scenario.”

Still, the combination of higher rates and inflation has hit household budgets particularly hard.

What the federal funds rate means for you

The federal funds rate, which is set by the central bank, is the interest rate at which banks borrow and lend to one another overnight. Whether directly or indirectly, higher Fed rates influence borrowing costs for consumers and, to a lesser extent, the rates they earn on savings accounts.

For now, this leaves many Americans in a bind as inflation and higher prices cause more people to lean on credit just when interest rates rise at the fastest pace in decades.

With more economic uncertainty ahead, consumers should be taking specific steps to stabilize their finances — including paying down debt, especially costly credit card and other variable rate debt, and increasing savings, McBride advised.

Pay down high-rate debt

Since most credit cards have a variable interest rate, there’s a direct connection to the Fed’s benchmark, so short-term borrowing rates are already heading higher.

Credit card annual percentage rates are now over 19%, on average, up from 16.3% at the beginning of the year, according to Bankrate.

The cost of existing credit card debt has already increased by at least $22.9 billion due to the Fed’s rate hikes, and it will rise by an additional $3.2 billion with this latest increase, according to a recent analysis by WalletHub.

If you’re carrying a balance, “grab one of the zero-percent or low-rate balance transfer offers,” McBride advised. Cards offering 15, 18 and even 21 months with no interest on transferred balances are still widely available, he said.

“This gives you a tailwind to get the debt paid off and shields you from the effect of additional rate hikes still to come.”

Otherwise, try consolidating and paying off high-interest credit cards with a lower interest home equity loan or personal loan.

Consumers with an adjustable-rate mortgage or home equity lines of credit may also want to switch to a fixed rate. 

How to know if we are in a recession

Because longer-term 15-year and 30-year mortgage rates are fixed and tied to Treasury yields and the broader economy, those homeowners won’t be immediately impacted by a rate hike.

However, the average interest rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is around 6.33% this week — up more than 3 full percentage points from 3.11% a year ago.

“These relatively high rates, combined with persistently high home prices, mean that buying a home is still a challenge for many,” said Jacob Channel, senior economic analyst at LendingTree.

The increase in mortgage rates since the start of 2022 has the same impact on affordability as a 32% increase in home prices, according to McBride’s analysis. “If you had been approved for a $300,000 mortgage in the beginning of the year, that’s the equivalent of less than $204,500 today.”

Anyone planning to finance a new car will also shell out more in the months ahead. Even though auto loans are fixed, payments are similarly getting bigger because interest rates are rising.

The average monthly payment jumped above $700 in November compared to $657 earlier in the year, despite the average amount financed and average loan term lengths staying more or less the same, according to data from Edmunds.

“Just as the industry is starting to see inventory levels get to a better place so that shoppers can actually find the vehicles they’re looking for, interest rates have risen to the point where more consumers are facing monthly payments that they likely cannot afford,” said Ivan Drury, Edmunds’ director of insights. 

Federal student loan rates are also fixed, so most borrowers won’t be impacted immediately by a rate hike. However, if you have a private loan, those loans may be fixed or have a variable rate tied to the Libor, prime or T-bill rates — which means that as the Fed raises rates, borrowers will likely pay more in interest, although how much more will vary by the benchmark.

That makes this a particularly good time to identify the loans you have outstanding and see if refinancing makes sense.

Shop for higher savings rates

While the Fed has no direct influence on deposit rates, they tend to be correlated to changes in the target federal funds rate, and the savings account rates at some of the largest retail banks, which were near rock bottom during most of the Covid pandemic, are currently up to 0.24%, on average.

Thanks, in part, to lower overhead expenses, the average online savings account rate is closer to 4%, much higher than the average rate from a traditional, brick-and-mortar bank.

“The good news is savers are seeing the best returns in 14 years, if they are shopping around,” McBride said.

Top-yielding certificates of deposit, which pay between 4% and 5%, are even better than a high-yield savings account.

And yet, because the inflation rate is now higher than all of these rates, any money in savings loses purchasing power over time. 

What’s coming next for interest rates

Consumers should prepare for even higher interest rates in the coming months.

Even though the Fed has already raised rates seven times this year, more hikes are on the horizon as the central bank slowly reins in inflation.

Recent data show that these moves are starting to take affect, including a better-than-expected consumer prices report for November. However, inflation remains well above the Fed’s 2% target.

“They will still be raising interest rates now and into 2023,” McBride said. “The ultimate stopping point is unknown, as is how long rates will stay at that eventual destination.”

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Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the extent of previous rate hikes.

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The Federal Reserve is about to hike interest rates one last time this year. Here’s how it may affect you

The Federal Reserve is expected on Wednesday to raise interest rates for the seventh time this year to combat stubborn inflation. 

The U.S. central bank will likely approve a 0.5 percentage point hike, a more typical pace compared with the super-size 75 basis point moves at each of the last four meetings.

This would push benchmark borrowing rates to a target range of 4.25% to 4.5%. Although that’s not the rate consumers pay, the Fed’s moves still affect the rates consumers see every day.

Why a smaller rate hike may be ‘pretty good news’

By raising rates, the Fed makes it costlier to take out a loan, causing people to borrow and spend less, effectively pumping the brakes on the economy and slowing down the pace of price increases. 

“For most people this is pretty good news because prices are starting to stabilize,” said Laura Veldkamp, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia University Business School. “That’s going to bring a lot of reassurance to households.”

However, “there are some households that will be hurt by this,” she added — particularly those with variable rate debt.

For example, most credit cards come with a variable rate, which means there’s a direct connection to the Fed’s benchmark rate.

But it doesn’t stop there.

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35% of millionaires say they won’t have enough to retire
Inflation boosts U.S. household spending by $433 a month

What the Fed’s rate hike means for you

Another increase in the prime rate will send financing costs even higher for many other forms of consumer debt. On the flip side, higher interest rates also mean savers will earn more money on their deposits.

“Credit card rates are at a record high and still increasing,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com. “Auto loan rates are at an 11-year high, home equity lines of credit are at a 15-year high, and online savings account and CD [certificate of deposit] yields haven’t been this high since 2008.”

Here’s a breakdown of how increases in the benchmark interest rate have impacted everything from mortgages and credit cards to car loans, student debt and savings:

1. Mortgages

2. Credit cards

Credit card annual percentage rates are now more than 19%, on average, up from 16.3% at the beginning of the year, according to Bankrate.

“Even those with the best credit card can expect to be offered APRs of 18% and higher,” said Matt Schulz, LendingTree’s chief credit analyst.

But “rates aren’t just going up on new cards,” he added. “The rate you’re paying on your current credit card is likely going up, too.”

Further, households are increasingly leaning on credit cards to afford basic necessities since incomes have not kept pace with inflation, making it even harder for those carrying a balance from month to month.

If the Fed announces a 50 basis point hike as expected, the cost of existing credit card debt will increase by an additional $3.2 billion in the next year alone, according to a new analysis by WalletHub.

3. Auto loans

Even though auto loans are fixed, payments are getting bigger because the price for all cars is rising along with the interest rates on new loans. So if you are planning to buy a car, you’ll shell out more in the months ahead.

The average interest rate on a five-year new car loan is currently 6.05%, up from 3.86% at the beginning of the year, although consumers with higher credit scores may be able to secure better loan terms.

Paying an annual percentage rate of 6.05% instead of 3.86% could cost consumers roughly $5,731 more in interest over the course of a $40,000, 72-month car loan, according to data from Edmunds.

Still, it’s not the interest rate but the sticker price of the vehicle that’s primarily causing an affordability crunch, McBride said.

4. Student loans

The interest rate on federal student loans taken out for the 2022-23 academic year already rose to 4.99%, up from 3.73% last year and 2.75% in 2020-21. It won’t budge until next summer: Congress sets the rate for federal student loans each May for the upcoming academic year based on the 10-year Treasury rate. That new rate goes into effect in July.

Private student loans tend to have a variable rate tied to the Libor, prime or Treasury bill rates — and that means that, as the Fed raises rates, those borrowers are also paying more in interest. How much more, however, will vary with the benchmark.

Currently, average private student loan fixed rates can range from 2.99% to 14.96%, and 2.99% to 14.86% for variable rates, according to Bankrate. As with auto loans, they vary widely based on your credit score.

5. Savings accounts

On the upside, the interest rates on some savings accounts are also higher after consecutive rate hikes.

While the Fed has no direct influence on deposit rates, the rates tend to be correlated to changes in the target federal funds rate. The savings account rates at some of the largest retail banks, which were near rock bottom during most of the Covid pandemic, are currently up to 0.24%, on average.

Thanks, in part, to lower overhead expenses, top-yielding online savings account rates are as high as 4%, much higher than the average rate from a traditional, brick-and-mortar bank, according to Bankrate.

“Interest rates can vary substantially, especially in today’s interest rate environment in which the Fed has raised its benchmark rate to its highest level in more than a decade,” said Ken Tumin, founder of DepositAccounts.com.

“Banks make money off of customers who don’t monitor their interest rates,” Tumin said.

With balances of $1,000 to $25,000, the difference between the lowest and highest annual percentage yield can result in an additional $51 to $965 in a year and $646 to $11,685 in 10 years, according to an analysis by DepositAccounts.

Still, any money earning less than the rate of inflation loses purchasing power over time. 

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