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Fed Halt Could Hurt You

On Jan. 3, the stock and bond markets decided that the Federal Reserve was near the end of a string of interest rate hikes that have taken short-term rates from 1% in June 2004 to 4.25% today.

Investors and traders cheered the thought. On the day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed 130 points.

If the financial markets are right -- a big if that I'll look at in a minute -- what does the end to the Federal Reserve's interest rate increases mean for you? My best guess at the five most likely effects:

  • A weaker dollar and higher prices at the store.
  • Higher gasoline prices.
  • Higher mortgage rates.
  • A continued rally in gold stocks and new life for financial stocks.
  • And an end-of-the-year surprise: interest-rate cuts from the Fed.

    The Jan. 3 stock and bond market rallies were set off by that afternoon's release of minutes from the Dec. 13 meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), the Fed body that sets targets for short-term interest rates. The minutes said that the committee's staff had forecast solid economic growth ahead -- with economic output near the economy's potential -- but at a pace slower than in 2005.

    Inflation, despite rising energy costs, was under control -- "benign," the minutes called it -- and there were tentative signs that past interest rate increases were starting to cool off the housing market. Some members now thought that interest rates were high enough to keep inflation under control.

    To the financial markets, the FOMC was saying, about as clearly as it ever says anything, that one more interest rate hike -- at the Jan. 31 meeting -- or two more at most, would mark the end to interest rate increases. The string of 0.25-percentage-point increases would end, the market concluded, and short-term rates would peak at 4.5% or 4.75%.

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