Emergency interest-rate cuts are here

The Fed has lowered interest rates by 50bps in its first intermeeting cut since 2008. While an interest-rate cut was widely expected, market reaction suggests investors might have been underwhelmed.

The U.S. Federal Reserve’s (Fed’s) announcement arrived roughly two hours after G7 finance ministers and central banks released a joint statement pledging to take additional action to support the economy and price stability. We now expect every major central bank, including the Bank of Canada and the European Central Bank, to ease rates either at or before their next respective rate-setting meetings. In addition, we believe the Fed will follow up with an additional 25 basis points (bps) interest-rate cut when it next meets on March 18.

What does the Fed’s 50bps rate cut accomplish in the midst of a health crisis? It’s true that the rate cut won’t rectify the disruption to the global supply chain, boost consumer spending, or help to contain the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). However, in theory, it should help unwind the tightening of financial conditions and act as a cushion for the recent decline in risk assets. Crucially, the rate cut could put a lid on U.S. dollar strength, which can evolve into a headwind for U.S. growth, lower the cost of corporate credits, and support refinancing activity for U.S. households.

Why, then, did risk assets move lower? In our view, there could be two reasons for this:

  1. The Fed’s rate cut doesn’t appear to be coordinated with other major central banks.
  2. The U.S. central bank could be perceived to be panicking (somewhat) about growth.

From where we stand, we could certainly see a variety of issues that might lead to a further fall in asset prices in the coming one to two months that could weigh on risk, absent a sudden improvement in COVID-19 cases.

The market has priced in additional rate cuts: more disappointments ahead?

As of this writing, the bond market is pricing in more than one rate cut at the March meeting,2 and at least one additional rate cut after that. No prizes for guessing that we believe it’ll be incredibly difficult for the Fed to meet those expectations. In essence, the markets are expecting the Fed to keep lowering interest rates, signal that there’ll be further rate cuts, and confirm that it has no intention of unwinding those cuts, even if the economic conditions were to improve. It’s fair to say that this is an extremely difficult ask; the path ahead for the Fed will likely be tricky, with plenty of scope for policy errors and miscommunication.

The global economy will slow dramatically in Q1, Q2 and possibly Q3

In our view, interest-rate reductions simply aren’t the appropriate prescription for healing supply chain shocks, plain and simple. It’s almost certain that China’s economic shutdown in the past two months—and possibly beyond—will continue to weigh on global trade, manufacturing, and business investment. This is particularly problematic given that the global economy isn’t confronting the anticipated slowdown from a place of strength, having been weakened by heightened trade tensions in the preceding 18 months. While we expect an improvement by the fourth quarter of this year, we believe global growth will continue to deteriorate for several months—with or without globally coordinated rate cuts. And that means lower corporate earnings, globally.

The United States isn’t insulated from external shocks

We’re seeing preliminary evidence of demand shocks permeating through the United States, although they remain less severe than supply chain-related issues at this point. In the coming weeks, we believe several economic indicators relating to the services sector (including retail spending) could miss expectations, and we continue to be concerned about the jobs market.

While it’s true that the U.S. consumer remains very strong fundamentally, thanks to high employment, rising wages, a high savings rate, and a relatively low debt burden, a confidence shock could keep an otherwise ”healthy” consumer from spending—and that’s exactly what COVID-19 is likely to do.

Separately, we also believe it’s important to look out for signs of weakness in the credit markets. The double whammy of a supply-side shock and a demand-side shock is likely to hurt corporate revenues, which can lead to a spike in missed debt payments. While China can direct banks to roll over loans and extend payment deadlines to ease the pressure on Chinese companies, the rest of the world isn’t able to respond in a similar fashion (at least, not without resorting to extraordinary measures). Interest-rate cuts can help to ease the pressure on debt obligations, but they won’t remove the risk entirely.

There’s still a U.S. presidential election coming up

While recent headlines have mostly been focused on the coronavirus breakout and the expected Fed rate cuts, financial markets will also be contending with news flow relating to the U.S. 2020 presidential election. In our view, the election will continue to play a part in driving market behavior. Any development suggesting that we could see a change in the Oval Office come November is unlikely to be well received by the markets.

Fiscal stimulus could be on its way

While it’s true that caution is warranted in the short term, we remain committed to our view that the medium-term outlook will be a lot brighter. We might take a little longer than expected to get there, and much of it will depend on how quickly the coronavirus outbreak is contained but get there we will—with a little help from various fronts.

In our view, it seems clear to everyone, including central banks, that monetary policy isn’t the most appropriate tool to deal with the current crisis. Fiscal spending is clearly the more effective tool, since it enables policymakers to directly target weaker geographic regions or business sectors and to help to alleviate confidence shocks.

We’ve seen some developments on this front—Italy has led the charge so far,4 and we believe policymakers in the United States and United Kingdom could follow. The joint G7 statement from the finance ministers on Tuesday stated that they “are ready to take actions, including fiscal measures where appropriate, to aid in the response to the virus and support the economy during this phase.”3 We view that as a positive—with lower rates, it’s also fairly cheap for policymakers to finance these initiatives. 

Is fiscal policy therefore a near-term upside risk? From a market sentiment perspective, yes. But when it comes to fiscal policies, the lead time between announcement and actual implementation is typically pretty long. It could be a few years before we’ll experience the positive impact of these policies, although measures such as payroll tax cuts or cash transfers can have an immediate effect on consumer spending and growth. That said, not all fiscal packages will be effective. Ultimately, their effectiveness will depend on how well thought out they are and how they’re implemented.

Lower rates, which act like a tax cut, can boost refinancing activity

We don’t expect rate cuts to suddenly encourage major consumer spending or power the already strong-performing housing market further. However, lower rates can spur refinancing activity, which can have a similar effect to placing extra cash into the pockets of those who choose to refinance. In other words, it can act like a tax cut. While concerns about the outbreak might deter consumers from spending that cash at this point, things will change as the virus dissipates. Crucially, that pent-up demand will do much to help accelerate the eventual recovery.

Inventory restocking and the absence of inflation could support growth

At the beginning of the year, we noted that inventory levels globally were lower than they should be and that the global economy should derive some support as restocking takes place. While firms aren’t likely to hop on the restocking bandwagon until virus fears have dissipated, it will happen eventually.

Finally, while the absence of inflation can be problematic, it can also spell relief for businesses. For one, it could mean that rate hikes are nowhere on the horizon, which suggests firms aren’t likely to face a destructive rise in input costs or wages. In our view, these factors could be supportive of global growth in important ways that are bullish for risk assets.


1 “Federal Reserve issues FOMC Statement,” federalreserve.gov, March 3, 2020. 2 Bloomberg, March 3, 2020. 3 “Statement of G7 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, March 3, 2020.4 “Italy unveils €3.6bn stimulus to tackle coronavirus,” Financial Times, March 1, 2020.

Investing involves risks, including the potential loss of principal. Financial markets are volatile and can fluctuate significantly in response to company, industry, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments. These risks are magnified for investments made in emerging markets. Currency risk is the risk that fluctuations in exchange rates may adversely affect the value of a portfolio’s investments.

The information provided does not take into account the suitability, investment objectives, financial situation, or particular needs of any specific person. You should consider the suitability of any type of investment for your circumstances and, if necessary, seek professional advice.

This material, intended for the exclusive use by the recipients who are allowable to receive this document under the applicable laws and regulations of the relevant jurisdictions, was produced by, and the opinions expressed are those of, Manulife Investment Management as of the date of this publication, and are subject to change based on market and other conditions. The information and/or analysis contained in this material have been compiled or arrived at from sources believed to be reliable, but Manulife Investment Management does not make any representation as to their accuracy, correctness, usefulness, or completeness and does not accept liability for any loss arising from the use of the information and/or analysis contained. The information in this material may contain projections or other forward-looking statements regarding future events, targets, management discipline, or other expectations, and is only as current as of the date indicated. The information in this document, including statements concerning financial market trends, are based on current market conditions, which will fluctuate and may be superseded by subsequent market events or for other reasons. Manulife Investment Management disclaims any responsibility to update such information.

Neither Manulife Investment Management or its affiliates, nor any of their directors, officers or employees shall assume any liability or responsibility for any direct or indirect loss or damage or any other consequence of any person acting or not acting in reliance on the information contained herein.  All overviews and commentary are intended to be general in nature and for current interest. While helpful, these overviews are no substitute for professional tax, investment or legal advice. Clients should seek professional advice for their particular situation. Neither Manulife, Manulife Investment Management, nor any of their affiliates or representatives is providing tax, investment or legal advice. Past performance does not guarantee future results. This material was prepared solely for informational purposes, does not constitute a recommendation, professional advice, an offer or an invitation by or on behalf of Manulife Investment Management to any person to buy or sell any security or adopt any investment strategy, and is no indication of trading intent in any fund or account managed by Manulife Investment Management. No investment strategy or risk management technique can guarantee returns or eliminate risk in any market environment. Diversification or asset allocation does not guarantee a profit nor protect against loss in any market. Unless otherwise specified, all data is sourced from Manulife Investment Management.

Manulife Investment Management

Manulife Investment Management is the global wealth and asset management segment of Manulife Financial Corporation. We draw on more than 150 years of financial stewardship to partner with clients across our institutional, retail, and retirement businesses globally. Our specialist approach to money management includes the highly differentiated strategies of our fixed-income, specialized equity, multi-asset solutions, and private markets teams—along with access to specialized, unaffiliated asset managers from around the world through our multimanager model.

These materials have not been reviewed by, are not registered with any securities or other regulatory authority, and may, where appropriate, be distributed by the following Manulife entities in their respective jurisdictions. Additional information about Manulife Investment Management may be found at www.manulifeam.com.

Australia: Hancock Natural Resource Group Australasia Pty Limited, Manulife Investment Management (Hong Kong) Limited. Brazil: Hancock Asset Management Brasil Ltda. Canada: Manulife Investment Management Limited, Manulife Investment Management Distributors Inc., Manulife Investment Management (North America) Limited, Manulife Investment Management Private Markets (Canada) Corp. China: Manulife Overseas Investment Fund Management (Shanghai) Limited Company. European Economic Area and United Kingdom: Manulife Investment Management (Europe) Ltd. which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, Manulife Investment Management (Ireland) Ltd. which is authorised and regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland Hong Kong: Manulife Investment Management (Hong Kong) Limited. Indonesia: PT Manulife Aset Manajemen Indonesia. Japan: Manulife Asset Management (Japan) Limited. Malaysia: Manulife Investment Management (M) Berhad (formerly known as Manulife Asset Management Services Berhad) 200801033087 (834424-U) Philippines: Manulife Asset Management and Trust Corporation. Singapore: Manulife Investment Management (Singapore) Pte. Ltd. (Company Registration No. 200709952G) Switzerland: Manulife IM (Switzerland) LLC. Taiwan: Manulife Investment Management (Taiwan) Co. Ltd. Thailand: Manulife Asset Management (Thailand) Company Limited. United States: John Hancock Investment Management LLC, Manulife Investment Management (US) LLC, Manulife Investment Management Private Markets (US) LLC and Hancock Natural Resource Group, Inc. Vietnam: Manulife Investment Fund Management (Vietnam) Company Limited.

Manulife Investment Management, the Stylized M Design, and Manulife Investment Management & Stylized M Design are trademarks of The Manufacturers Life Insurance Company and are used by it, and by its affiliates under license.




Frances Donald

Frances Donald, 

Global Chief Economist and Global Head of Macroeconomic Strategy, Multi-Asset Solutions Team

Manulife Investment Management

Read bio