The Federal Open Market Committee meets eight times a year in order to determine the near-term direction of monetary policy. For monetary policy, the FOMC evaluates the relative concerns over the outlook for economic growth (too strong, too weak, about right) and pending inflation (too high, too low, about right). FOMC members then vote on what policy course to take, whether for example to add stimulus by cutting short-term interest rates or by purchasing debt securities in the open market (Quantitative Easing) or whether to withdraw stimulus by raising rates and cutting back on open-market purchases. The FOMC consists of the seven governors of the Federal Reserve Board (assuming no seats are vacant) and five Federal Reserve Bank presidents. The New York Fed president is always on the FOMC and the other four seats for the District presidents are rotated yearly. Changes in monetary policy are announced immediately after FOMC meetings.
The Fed determines interest rate policy at FOMC meetings. These occur roughly every six weeks and are the single most influential event for the markets. For weeks in advance, market participants speculate about the possibility of an interest rate change at these meetings. If the outcome is different from expectations, the impact on the markets can be dramatic and far-reaching. Since the Fed began giving guidance on policy rates, changes in wording on guidance also affect markets. Similarly, since the Fed engaged in quantitative easing, guidance on asset purchases also can move markets.
The interest rate set by the Fed, the federal funds rate, serves as a benchmark for all other rates. A change in the fed funds rate, the lending rate banks charge each other for the use of overnight funds, translates directly through to all other interest rates from Treasury bonds to mortgage loans. It also changes the dynamics of competition for investor dollars. When bonds yield 5 percent, they will attract more money away from stocks then when they only yield 3 percent.
The level of interest rates affects the economy. Higher interest rates tend to slow economic activity; lower interest rates stimulate economic activity. Either way, interest rates influence the sales environment. In the consumer sector, few homes or cars will be purchased when interest rates rise. Furthermore, interest rate costs are a significant factor for many businesses, particularly for companies with high debt loads or who have to finance high inventory levels. This interest cost has a direct impact on corporate profits. The bottom line is that higher interest rates are bearish for the stock market, while lower interest rates are bullish.
Eight times a year.