How Does the Economy Look Now Compared to When the Fed Hiked Rates in the Past?

This isn't Greenspan's economy and the Fed is in uncharted territory

How Divided Is the Fed Over a Rate Hike?

If the Federal Reserve raises interest rates on Thursday, it will be doing so in an economy that is radically different from the past. The lack of comparable economic terrain is one of the complications that Chair Janet Yellen faces as her committee contemplates an exit from almost seven years of near-zero interest rates. 

Check out the accompanying graphic to see how the landscape has changed, with a focus on key indicators that the Fed uses to gauge the economy's momentum. For example, when the Federal Reserve last started to lift rates back in June 2004, inflation stood at 2.8 percent and 66 percent of the population was working or looking for a job. Today, those numbers stand at a feeble 0.3 percent and less than 63 percent, respectively.


The changed dynamics mean that instead of inflation-fighting as it has in the past, the Fed is getting ahead of price pressures and working to preempt asset bubbles after more than 6 years of easy money. Rather than operating in an economy where a broad-based labor market rebound is beginning to boost wages, low labor force participation and tepid pay gains have left policy makers scratching their heads over whether low unemployment -- just above 5 percent -- is under-representing slack. The U.S. is also more exposed to the global economy, which is growing less rapidly than in 2004. 

The difference between then and now "matters hugely -- it raises the risk of a policy misstep relative to previous cycles, and I think it explains why the commentary has been so much about gradualism,'' said John Davies, U.S. rates strategist at Standard Chartered Bank in London, referring to the Fed's desire to tighten only slowly. 

"It is going to be very much meeting to meeting, quarter to quarter," he said. 

Still, by raising rates the Fed will signal that they still think traditional economic relationships hold and inflation will firm as unemployment falls. That means they still view the past as a guide, if a rough one, said Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. 

"It may be that instead of driving a highway from Washington to New York, I'm driving secondary to roads from Washington to Baltimore, but I still have a map," Posen said.  "If the Fed doesn't believe that some of these growth dynamics are the same as they used to be, then they shouldn't be considering raising.'' 

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