Fed may need to slash rates to zero before the end of 2020

The Federal Reserve is strongly suggesting that interest rates are unlikely to budge much before the 2020 election.

After three straight rate cuts, the US central bank on Wednesday said rates are at “appropriate” levels to keep the longest economic expansion in history humming.

A wide majority of Fed officials anticipate holding rates steady until 2021 — or later. Fed chief Jerome Powell said it would take a “material reassessment” of the central bank’s economic outlook for that to change.

“The Fed is on course to do nothing for the foreseeable future,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in a note to clients.

That thinking makes sense. Recession fears have eased. Hiring has rebounded. The trade war could be cooling off. And US stocks are once again sitting at all-time highs.

But what if the consensus is wrong? That’s what happened in 2018 when the most economists expected the Fed would raise rates three or even four times this year. Instead, Powell & Co. reversed course and suddenly slashed rates to boost the economy.

Rabobank, a Dutch bank that was prescient in predicting that Fed reversal, is now warning that the central bank’s work is not even close to done.

“The Fed thinks it has everything under control,” Philip Marey, Rabobank’s senior US strategist, wrote in a note to clients on Wednesday.

But the same forecasting model that led Rabobank to correctly pinpoint the end of the Fed’s recent rate hiking cycle is now signaling that the central bank will need to “cut rates all the way back to zero before the end of 2020,” Marey said.

“The three insurance cuts [this year] will not be enough to prevent the economy from sliding into a recession,” he wrote. “While the Fed is still convinced that they have made a mid-cycle adjustment, we think that it is more likely that we are late in the cycle.”

Rabobank predicts the Fed will keep rates steady at the current range of 1.5% to 1.75% until April. That’s when the firm anticipates that the Fed will launch the first of six-straight “recession” cuts.

To be sure, this is a contrarian call.

And it could prove to be very wrong, especially if the trade war between the United States and China starts to fizzle out.

US stocks rallied on Thursday on news that the two sides had agreed in principle to a preliminary trade deal. “Getting VERY close to a BIG DEAL with China,” President Donald Trump tweeted.

Even without a trade deal, Goldman Sachs expects the US economy will accelerate in 2020, driving the unemployment rate below 3.3%.

Bank of America said the Fed is signaling a “long pause.”

Markets are pricing in just a 15% chance that the Fed will cut rates more than once in 2020, according to the CME FedWatch Tool. Investors are signaling there in no chance of rates dropping to zero.

Rabobank’s Marey isn’t convinced.

“We have been here before,” he said.