Fed’s tough challenge: Confront inflation and bank jitters
Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington. With inflation still high and anxieties gripping the banking industry, the Federal Reserve and its chair, Jerome Powell, will face a complicated task at their latest policy meeting Wednesday and in the months to follow: How to tame inflation by continuing to raise interest rates while also helping to restore faith in the financial system – all without triggering a severe recession. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
By Christopher Rugaber in Washington
WASHINGTON (AP) — Still grappling with persistently high inflation, the Federal Reserve faces an entirely new — and in some ways conflicting — challenge as it meets to consider interest rates this week: How to restore calm to a nervous banking system.
The two simultaneous problems would normally push the Fed in different directions: To fight elevated inflation, it would raise its benchmark rate, perhaps substantially, for the ninth time in the past year. But at the same time, to soothe financial markets, the Fed might prefer to leave rates unchanged, at least for now.
Most economists think the Fed will navigate the conundrum by raising rates by just a quarter-point when its latest policy meeting ends Wednesday. That would be less than the half-point hike that many economists had expected before the recent collapse of two large banks. But it would still mark another step by the Fed in its continuing drive to tame inflation.
If the Fed were instead to leave rates alone, which some analysts last week had suggested it might do given the banking turmoil, it could alarm Wall Street traders by suggesting that significant problems remain in the banking system.
Vincent Reinhart, a former top Fed economist now at the investment bank Dreyfus-Mellon, noted that the central bank prefers to manage financial stability issues separately from its rate decisions. One goal of a series of emergency steps the Fed announced Sunday to bolster the banking system is to allow it to separately address inflation through its rate policies.
“If you are obviously seen as adjusting your monetary policy because of concerns about financial strain, then you’re admitting you’re not (successfully) doing … crisis management,” Reinhart said.
Last week, the European Central Bank imposed a half-point rate hike to try to reduce an 8.5% inflation rate despite jitters caused by the struggles of Switzerland’s second-largest lender, Credit Suisse. ECB President Christine Lagarde said she saw “no tradeoff” between fighting inflation and preserving financial stability.
On Sunday, the Swiss banking giant UBS bought troubled Credit Suisse for $3.25 billion in a deal orchestrated by banking regulators to try to prevent potentially calamitous turmoil in global markets.
The Fed intervened in the banking emergency a little over a week ago by joining with the Treasury Department and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to announce that the government would protect all of the banks’ deposits. It also unveiled an expansive emergency lending program to provide ready cash for banks and other financial institutions. And it sweetened the terms for the banks to borrow from a long-standing Fed facility known as the “discount window.”
On Thursday, the Fed said it had lent nearly $300 billion in emergency funding to banks, including a record amount from the discount window.
Assuming that those programs work as intended, the Fed can focus on its ongoing campaign to cool inflation. Most recent economic reports point to a still-hot economy with strong hiring, steady consumer spending and persistent inflation.
Consumer prices rose 6% in February from a year earlier, down from a peak of 9.1% last June. Most of that decline reflected a shift in consumer spending away from goods — such as used cars, furniture and appliances, which have been falling in price — and toward services, including traveling, dining out and entertainment events.
That spending surge has kept inflation high in services categories, which Fed Chair Jerome Powell has singled out as a major concern because inflation tends to be particularly persistent in services.
“Inflation — it’s still got some legs, unfortunately,” said Nathan Sheets, a former Treasury official and Fed economist, now chief global economist at Citi. “The labor market is still booming.”
Hiring and inflation figures accelerated earlier this year after having shown signs of cooling in late 2022. In response, Powell and other Fed officials suggested that the central bank would likely raise rates higher than they had forecast in December and probably keep them at a peak for longer.
When the Fed raises its key rate, it typically leads to higher rates on mortgages, auto loans, credit cards and many business loans. Typically, consumer and business spending slow in response.
“The recent data indicate that we haven’t made as much progress as we thought,” Christopher Waller, a member of the Fed’s Board of Governors, said this month. The Fed’s efforts to reduce inflation to its 2% target, Waller said, “will be slower and longer than many had expected just a month or two ago.”
The banking troubles have also intensified fears among many economists that the economy could soon tumble into recession.
One reason for the pessimism is that some banks will likely curtail lending to help shore up their finances and avoid running the risk of a collapse. Economists at Goldman Sachs estimate that credit tightening by the banking sector could reduce economic growth this year by as much as a half-percentage point.
Ironically, though, that slowdown in growth could help the Fed, which has had only limited success in trying to cool the economy through its rate hikes.
The potential slowdown in lending “is going to do some of the Fed’s work for it,” said John Roberts, a former Federal Reserve economist said. “So the Fed won’t have to raise rates as high as otherwise.”
BMO completes US$160M deal to purchase Air Miles loyalty rewards program
Air Miles and BMO cards are displayed in Mississauga, Ont., on Friday, March 10, 2023. BMO Financial Group closed its acquisition of the Air Miles loyalty rewards program in Canada on Thursday, saying it plans to expand the program with new ways to earn and redeem points. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
BMO Financial Group closed its acquisition of the Air Miles loyalty rewards program in Canada on Thursday, saying it plans to expand the program with new ways to earn and redeem points.
“Going forward, BMO ownership gives the program stability, but more importantly, the opportunity for us to invest in the program,” said Air Miles president Shawn Stewart.
BMO announced in March it would purchase Air Miles after the program’s U.S. parent company filed for bankruptcy. The bank’s so-called stalking horse offer for LoyaltyOne Co. was US$160 million, subject to certain adjustments, according to court documents.
With the bank’s ownership, Stewart says he’s excited for the program’s new chapter.
“We wanted to come out of the gate strong and reinvigorate what is a Canadian leading loyalty program. And what you’ll see over the summer is a continued release of of new products, and new opportunities for collectors to earn.”
Air Miles is one of the oldest and largest loyalty programs in Canada, with nearly 10 million active users, but the program has lagged in recent years as numerous companies dropped out of the program.
Last summer, Sobeys and Safeway owner Empire Co. Ltd. and office supply retailer Staples said they would be scrapping the program, a year after the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and Lowe’s Canada pulled out.
BMO said it plans to introduce enhancements to the program including an improved travel booking platform and a new way for collectors to earn Bonus Miles through receipt scanning. The latter will be available first for collectors in Atlantic Canada, followed by those in other regions.
Stewart said the main complaint coming from program partners was a lack of investment in the Air Miles program, an issue the acquisition is expected to address.
“When partners see our investment, our hope and our plan is that they’ll see the growth in the program, the opportunity for them to speak to 10 million Canadians, to understand and use the data and analytics the program provides,” he said.
The Air Miles program is re-introducing itself to Canadians in a market that’s seen more stores launching loyalty programs in recent years, but Stewart said that Air Miles stands out as a longtime brand with a broad catalogue for points redemption.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2023.
Total Canadian debt hit new record in first quarter: TransUnion
Canadians’ combined outstanding debt hit a new record in the first quarter, reaching $2.32 trillion, TransUnion said Wednesday.
As the cost of living rose with high inflation and interest rate hikes, many Canadians turned to credit to alleviate financial pressures, the credit reporting agency said in its latest industry insights report.
The number of Canadians with access to credit grew 2.9 per cent year over year, led by subprime consumers, which grew by 8.3 per cent, TransUnion said.
However, the agency said consumers considered prime or higher still make up almost three-quarters of total consumers with a balance, characterizing that as a “relatively healthy risk distribution.”
Credit card originations were up 20 per cent amid heavy competition in the market, while the average line of credit monthly payment increased by 43 per cent to $436.
Mortgage origination dropped 32 per cent year over year as higher interest rates slowed demand for new mortgages, especially in the refinance market.
Meanwhile, serious consumer delinquency increased, though TransUnion noted that overall delinquency levels remain below pre-pandemic levels.
“The financial position of Canadian credit consumers improved coming out of the pandemic, bolstered by higher savings accumulated through the pandemic and supported by a strong labour market,” said TransUnion director of research and industry insights Matthew Fabian in the report.
“However, the longer the current conditions of elevated inflation and higher interest rates persist, the more likely it is that a segment of more vulnerable consumers may increasingly feel the pinch,” he said.
“As available disposable incomes become more stretched, we expect a segment of consumers will be more likely to miss payments, and as a result, that delinquency rates will rise.”
Average consumer balances on most credit products rose, with the average credit card balance up 11.4 per cent to $3,909, and the average mortgage balance up 7.1 per cent to $349,178.
TransUnion expects credit trends for 2023 to be mixed due to the uneven impact of higher inflation and interest rates.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2023.
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