Updated from Dec. 15.
The Federal Reserve raised interest rates this week for the first time since the financial crisis -- and it may not be a one-off event.
Well over half of global investors expect the central bank's monetary policy committee expect to keep going -- boosting rates three times or more within in the next 12 months, according to the December fund manager survey from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, released Tuesday.
That is welcome news for U.S. banks. Seven years of near-zero interest rates, a holdover from efforts to bolster a flailing economy in 2008, have curbed their net interest margin. A key revenue stream made up of the difference between the rate banks charge to lend money and what they pay to depositors, net interest margin typically accounts for half to three-fourths of revenue for U.S. banks, according to ratings firm Moody's.
Still, growth is unlikely to come overnight. Moody's predicts rate hikes will be "moderate at best," and gradual, a forecast that reflects Fed Chair Janet Yellen's statements that economic conditions may warrant keeping interest rates "below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run" for some time.
"Although higher rates do benefit banks, we don't expect there to be a significant increase in rates," Joseph Pucella, a Moody's vice president, said in an interview.
The net interest margin for 15 major U.S. banks has been well below a 20-year median for all banks since the start of 2014. A peak of 3.2% in last year's first quarter was still more than 50 basis points below the norm of 3.7%, a Moody's report indicated.
That gap had widened to nearly 80 basis points by the end of this year's third quarter, a trend that bodes ill for the broader economy. When bank and finance profit margins are squeezed, "then overall corporate profits are squeezed as well," said investment icon Bill Gross, who co-founded Pimco before moving to Janus Capital in 2014, in November.
If the Fed does raise interest rates regularly, as the Bank of America survey suggests, banks will still have to fend off heightened competition from non-banks. That, combined with prolonged low rates, has pressured financiers to seek higher returns on loans and "put downward pressure on banks' underwriting standards, which will likely lead to higher problem loans when the economic cycle turns negative," said Robert Young, a Moody's managing director, in a statement.
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And in the meantime, higher rates will have an effect far beyond banks and finance companies, bolstering a strong dollar that's already trimming revenues for manufacturers with significant sales overseas.
The euro has fallen 10% against the dollar this year, a pivotal shift in the world's biggest currency-exchange market. At the same time, the dollar index, which measures the greenback against a group of world currencies, has gained 8.5%.
"The strong dollar view is writ large," said Michael Hartnett, chief investment strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research, in a statement. "It will take a very dovish Fed and weak U.S. earnings to reverse the strong dollar view in 2016."
The Charlotte, N.C.,-based bank's periodic survey included 215 respondents managing $620 billion of assets.