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Will a rising federal funds rate hurt the economy?

Amid all the speculation about when the Federal Reserve will begin tapering back from its stimulative, low-interest-rate measures is a persistent subtext: the question of whether the economy has become overly dependent on unnaturally low interest rates.

Certainly, the stock market has acted jittery whenever the Fed signals that it may soon raise rates. However, since raising rates is predicated on the economy showing signs of strength, should people really be so fearful of higher rates?

To get an historical perspective on this question, looked at economic growth and stock market performance during periods when the federal funds rate was rising or falling. The numbers suggest that the economy need not fear rising rates, but that stock market investors perhaps should.

Rising interest rates and the economy

Over the past 50 years, real GDP growth has averaged 3.11 percent a year. That growth rate has been stronger in times of a rising federal funds rate than in times when the rate has fallen.

In calendar years when the federal funds rate has increased, real GDP growth has averaged 4.08 percent. In years when that rate has decreased, real GDP growth has averaged just 2.14 percent. The severity of the decrease also seems linked to the strength of the economy. When the federal funds rate has dropped by 1 percent or more, real GDP growth has averaged just 1.45 percent, and when that rate dropped by 2 percent or more, growth has been lower still, at 0.19 percent.

This underscores the reality that the Fed is likelier to raise rates when the economy is strong, so clearly rising rates is more a symptom of good economic health than it is an obstacle for the economy.

Rising interest rates and the stock market

While the economy has thrived when rates were rising, the stock market has not. Stocks have gained an average of 7.80 percent over the last 50 years, but this number drops to 2.36 percent when the federal funds rate has risen by 1 percent or more, and to just 1.70 percent when that rate has risen by 2 percent or more.

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