Dr. Alice Mills, a veterinary practitioner in Lexington, Kentucky, had considered selling her practice this year but decided against it due to concerns about rising interest rates. She believed that it would be difficult to sell in such an economic climate but hoped that interest rates would decrease in the coming year. However, predicting the future of borrowing costs is challenging.
The cost of borrowing for business purchases, car loans, and mortgages has significantly increased in 2023. Mortgage rates, for instance, have risen to around 7% from 2.7% at the end of 2020, following the Federal Reserve’s efforts to cool down the economy. The central bank has raised its policy interest rate to a range of 5.25 to 5.5%, the highest level in 22 years. These rate increases have led to higher borrowing costs across the economy, aiming to dampen demand and curb inflation.
However, now that the Fed is nearing the end of its rate increases, the economy is approaching a critical point. Consumers are uncertain about when interest rates will decrease and by how much. According to John C. Williams, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Fed is close to its peak rate, and additional increases beyond a quarter of a point are unlikely. The question now is how long the restrictive stance will be maintained and what it will entail.
The future of interest rates remains unclear as Fed officials expect only slight rate cuts next year, with rates potentially taking several years to reach a level between 2 and 3%. The return to near-zero rates, like those seen during the pandemic, is not projected. Economists outside the Fed believe that borrowing costs may remain higher than those in the 2010s due to various factors such as increased government debt, a shift towards domestic manufacturing, and the need for green investments driven by climate change.
The concept of a “neutral rate,” the point where the economy is neither stimulated nor depressed, may have risen, further influencing borrowing costs. This change could account for the economy’s ability to function with higher interest rates than before. Economists, like Kristin Forbes of MIT, caution that pinpointing the neutral rate is challenging, but they believe that the economy has adapted to higher interest rates after a weak recovery from the Great Recession.
Many economists see slightly higher rates as beneficial, as it makes it easier to stimulate the economy during times of trouble. Before the pandemic, declining demand for borrowed money kept rates low, leading the Fed to cut rates close to zero to encourage spending. However, even near-zero rates were not always sufficient to boost growth. If demand for money remains slightly higher on a regular basis, it allows for a more effective response to economic challenges.
While prominent economists do not expect rates to return to the levels of the 1980s and 1990s, there is still debate about the exact level they will stabilize at. Factors such as demographic changes, low birth rates, and the shift to internet services are expected to keep rates from reaching previous lows. Lukasz Rachel, an economist at University College London, argues that these factors will maintain rates close to their pre-pandemic level. Consequently, this has implications for the Fed’s monetary policy, as it will need to lower rates if inflation continues to fall to avoid undue restraint on the economy.
For Dr. Mills, the prospect of lower interest rates would be good news as it brings her closer to partial retirement. Her plan is to return to zoo work, an area she had previously practiced early in her career. Selling her cat-only practice would enable her to pursue her passion for working with big cats, a goal she hopes to achieve in retirement.