They don’t ring a bell

According to hoary Wall Street lore, they don’t ring a bell when a bull market ends or a bear market begins. (Those would actually be the same thing). But Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen did all but that today when she spoke at the Kansas City Fed’s economic conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

“I believe the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has strengthened in recent months,” Yellen said, which is just about as close to skywriting “RATES ARE GOING UP!” as a Fed chair can get. Wall Street, which has anticipating higher rates since 2009, reacted predictably, selling off stocks and bonds at the same time. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 53.01 points, to 18,395.40, and the bellwether 10-year Treasury note yield rose to 1.635%. Bond prices fall when interest rates rise, and vice-versa.

Naturally, the case for raising interest rates soon is debatable. In terms of timing, the Fed is traditionally reluctant to raise rates in the months before a presidential election. If that reasoning still holds, the next opportunity to increase the key fed funds rate would be in December.

And on a relative basis, interest rates are pretty high already. The fed funds rate is 0.25% to 0.50%. The European Central Bank’s rate is zero, as is the Bank of Japan’s. The Swedish central bank’s rate is -0.25%, and the Swiss government rate is -0.75%.

The Fed doesn’t control long-term interest rates, but the picture there is just as grim. Germany’s 10-year yield is -0.07%. France’s decade note yields 0.17%, albeit with a certain je ne sais quois. Italy’s 10-year rate — Italy’s! — is 1.17%.

What is starting to make the Fed uneasy, however, is rising wages. The Fed has been able to flood the world with easy money for nearly a decade without fear of a wage-price spiral because wages have been flat for more than a decade. You just can’t have a wage-price spiral without higher wages.

Oddly — and somehow justifiably — those at the lowest end of the wage spectrum have been seeing the biggest wage increases, thanks in large part to state-mandated minimum-wage increases. But that’s not the only reason. Many companies, such as Walmart and McDonald’s, have come to the realization that they rely heavily on those who face the public. Those people are almost invariably on the lower end of the wage spectrum.

Perhaps Lily will get a raise.
Perhaps Lily will get a raise.

Service companies are also discovering, to no one’s surprise than theirs, that people who don’t make much don’t feel a lot of loyalty to their employers. Low-wage employees will often gladly jump ship to another company that pays better wages. In the recession, companies could simply say, “Be glad you have a job.” But many of the new job gains have gone to low-income employees — so much so, in fact, that there’s a relative shortage of people willing to take low-wage jobs.

“Wage acceleration has been concentrated in low-pay sectors, such as restaurants and retailing,” says Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “In our view, the increase in low-pay wages is due to state-level minimum wage increases and a shortage of younger, less-educated workers. We see sharp increases only in low wage sectors: broader wages should rise more gradually as joblessness falls.”

The Fed raises interest rates to slow the economy and reduce the threat of inflation. But bear in mind that interest-rate increases take a long time — 18 months or so — to fully take effect on the economy. Furthermore, a more or less normal fed funds rate, which is neither accommodative nor restrictive — is somewhere between 3% and 4%. It will take many more quarter-percent rate hikes to get back to normal.

The big danger is that the economy isn’t exactly boiling over. Current estimates for third-quarter gross domestic product are a 1% increase or less.

If you’re looking for a rate shock, you probably won’t see one any time soon. You may start to see better rates on bank CDs: The top ones now yield about 1%, according to Bankrate.com. But you should start to be wary of interest-rate sensitive stocks, such as utilities and preferred stocks. And if you’re thinking of loading up on bonds, you might want to wait a bit.