finance

What the Fed rate-hike pause means for bank accounts, CDs, loans, and credit cards

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It’s been a long climb to higher interest rates since inflation peaked at 9.1% in June 2022.

The Federal Reserve worked to tame consumer prices with a series of 11 interest rate hikes over the ensuing months, which helped slow the rise. Inflation stood at 3.1% in November 2023.

With a target of 2%, the Fed’s decision Wednesday, Dec. 13, to pause rate hikes for the third month in a row shows the central bank believes it’s winning the fight against inflation — but remains watchful.

So interest rates are still elevated and any hope of the Fed lowering rates remains months away.

How monetary policy works

The Fed controls one interest rate: the federal funds rate, which is the short-term rate banks use to borrow from each other. The latest action keeps the target range for the federal-funds rate at 5.25-5.50%. Fed interest rate decisions filter through the financial world, impacting virtually every facet of borrowing costs and saving rates. Interest rate management is monetary medicine the Fed uses to:

  • Slow the economy by raising interest rates in an effort to tame rising costs (high inflation) as measured by the consumer price index.

  • Help mount a recovery when we’re at the opposite end of an economic cycle by lowering interest rates as an injection of liquidity into the financial system.

  • Allow past moves to take root while the Fed considers future actions by holding rates steady.

What the Fed says is ahead for interest rates

In a statement issued following the announcement of another pause in rate hikes, the Fed said that “inflation has eased over the past year but remains elevated.” Because a strong economy can fuel higher consumer prices, the Fed says it will “continue to assess additional information and its implications for monetary policy.”

Individual members of the Federal Open Market Committee, which sets the federal funds rate, maintain a 4.6% target by the end of 2024, which would imply three rate cuts next year. But Fed Chair Jerome Powell said that such projections are “not a committee decision or plan” and further interest rate hikes could be made “if appropriate.”

Here’s how the Fed’s actions could trickle down to your loans and accounts.

How a rate-hike pause affects checking and savings accounts

Your short-term liquidity depends on money in the bank. For years, that has meant Americans treading water as cash earned next to nothing. As interest rates have risen, so have deposit account rates. The continuing pause in interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve will likely keep deposit account rates near their current level.

But savvy savers need to shop for the best returns as providers consider easing their interest rate payouts.

Checking accounts

Checking accounts that pay interest offer the most meager returns. But you need quick access to the money, and if you manage your cash flow, the bank won’t have most of that money in its hands for long.

Interest-earning checking accounts paid a national average of 0.04% monthly in November 2022. A year later, that rate had risen to 0.07%. On a scale of “not much interest” measured in basis points, that’s from a smidge to a tad.

Let’s move up the interest-paid-for-cash scale.

Savings accounts

Short to mid-term money is best parked in a savings account. It’s part of your easy-in, easy-out cash strategy. Last year, in November, the monthly average interest rate on a traditional savings account at a brick-and-mortar bank was 0.24%. In November 2023 it was 0.46%.

High-yield savings accounts pay more — Yahoo Finance is seeing high-yield savings account APYs of 4.5% to 5% or more. (APY is the result of compounding your interest rate. Compounding periods can vary by bank.)

Money market accounts

A money market account often boosts your return from a common checking account, but you’ll likely need to deposit anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 to earn the raise.

Last November’s national average monthly interest rate was 0.29%. One year later, it was 0.63%. That’s a slight decrease from October’s rate. But remember, that’s an average. Consider putting your second layer of cash in an above-average money market account. It’s the money you want close at hand, but not checking-account close.

To do that, look for a high-yield money market account. As the Federal Reserve holds interest rates where they are, high-yield money market accounts will remain elevated. Again, Yahoo Finance is seeing high-yield interest rates in the mid-4% range and higher.

What to do now: Shop rates at banks, both brick-and-mortar and online. Keep your near-term cash nimble and earning the best rate it can.

What Fed policy does for CDs

This year has brought good news for CDs. As the Fed pushed rates up, certificates of deposit earned more.

A 12-month CD was earning 0.90% monthly interest in November 2022. A bucket of rate hikes later, the same term CD was paying 1.85%. The best CDs are topping 5.5% APY. Your minimum deposit and term will determine your rate.

Consider a CD ladder to surf the rising wave of interest rates.

What to do now: Use CDs to earn interest on your mid-term money. Staggering maturities, with the ladder strategy mentioned above, will allow you the flexibility to benefit from higher interest rates and access your money without locking it all up for years.

What the latest Federal Reserve move will mean for loans and mortgages

Now to the other side of the asset/liability ledger. Higher interest rates influenced by the Federal Reserve’s tightening of the money supply mean you pay lenders more to borrow.

Personal loans

Interest rates on personal loans have risen from 8.73% at the beginning of the Fed rate hikes in 2022 to 12.17% in August 2023.

Student loans

With forbearance ending and payments due again, student loans are rising top-of-mind again for those who still owe. Most federal loans have fixed interest rates, so Fed policy doesn’t impact them. Private student loans may have a variable rate, and Fed rate hikes can be a factor.

To learn the interest rate on an existing loan, contact your lender or loan servicer.

The latest plan from the Biden administration, SAVE IDR, could allow lower payments to those who qualify. Over 800,000 borrowers have been notified of loan forgiveness related to income-driven repayment plans.

Meanwhile, interest rates on new student loans are rising.

Home mortgage loans

If you’ve been looking to buy a home in the past two years, you know this story. Home loan rates have soared. When the Fed hikes began, lenders were pricing 30-year fixed-rate mortgages around 4%, according to Freddie Mac. Home loan interest rates have declined slightly since the end of October but still hover near 7%.

The Fed doesn’t directly influence current mortgage rates, they’re a function of lenders tracking financial markets. However, if high inflation continues to ease, it’s likely that home loan rates will soon follow. It won’t be a diamond run descent. It took nearly 20 years for mortgage loan rates to fall from 7% in 2001 to an annual percentage rate under 3% in 2020. And homebuyers may not see lenders price home loan rates that low again anytime soon. The 50-year average for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is well over 7%.

What to do now: Carefully consider taking on any additional debt as interest rates remain elevated. If you do initiate a new loan, budget your monthly payment for rates to remain mostly stable. Then if interest rates do head lower and you get a refinancing opportunity, it will be a welcome budget surprise.

How Fed interest rate hikes impact credit cards

While the Fed’s fight against inflation may be easing the rise in consumer prices, the central bank’s past rate increases have impacted your credit card debt, too – and not in a good way.

Credit card interest rates have moved from an average of 16.65% to well over 22% during the Federal Reserve’s latest rate-raising cycle. No doubt, those variable APR interest rate charges on credit cards will remain high as long as the monetary policy holds firm.

That means minimum payments due won’t ease and stiff interest charges on credit card balances will remain unless you pay off your cards each billing cycle.

What to do now: Prioritize paying off the credit cards you can — especially those with the highest interest charges — and consider balance transfers to lower interest rate and zero-interest credit card offers as your credit score allows. With good credit, a personal loan for credit card debt consolidation may be another option to consider.

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