What Happens When Interest Rates Fall?
When the economy is slowing, the Federal Reserve cuts the federal funds rate to stimulate financial activity. A decrease in interest rates by the Fed has the opposite effect of a rate hike. Investors and economists alike view lower interest rates as catalysts for growth—a benefit to personal and corporate borrowing, which, in turn, leads to greater profits and a robust economy. Consumers will spend more, with the lower interest rates making them feel they can finally afford to buy that new house or send their kids to a private school. Businesses will enjoy the ability to finance operations, acquisitions, and expansions at a cheaper rate, thereby increasing their future earnings potential, which, in turn, leads to higher stock prices.
Particular winners of lower federal funds rates are dividend-paying sectors such as utilities and real estate investment trusts (REITs). Additionally, large companies with stable cash flows and strong balance sheets benefit from cheaper debt financing.
Impact of Interest Rates on Stocks
Nothing has to actually happen to consumers or companies for the stock market to react to interest-rate changes. Rising or falling interest rates also affect investors’ psychology, and the markets are nothing if not psychological. When the Fed announces a hike, both businesses and consumers will cut back on spending, which will cause earnings to fall and stock prices to drop, and the market tumbles in anticipation. On the other hand, when the Fed announces a cut, the assumption is consumers and businesses will increase spending and investment, causing stock prices to rise.
If expectations differ significantly from the Fed’s actions, these generalized, conventional reactions may not apply. Let’s say the word on the street is the Fed is going to cut interest rates by 50 basis points at its next meeting, but the Fed announces a drop of only 25 basis points. The news may actually cause stocks to decline because assumptions of a 50-basis-points cut had already been priced into the market.
The number of points the Dow dropped on Oct. 10, 2018, due to the fear of higher interest rates.
The business cycle, and where the economy is in it, can also affect the market’s reaction. At the onset of a weakening economy, the modest boost provided by lower rates is not enough to offset the loss of economic activity, and stocks continue to decline. Conversely, toward the end of a boom cycle, when the Fed is moving in to raise rates—a nod to improved corporate profits—certain sectors often continue to do well, such as technology stocks, growth stocks and entertainment/recreational company stocks.
The Bottom Line
Although the relationship between interest rates and the stock market is fairly indirect, the two tend to move in opposite directions—as a general rule of thumb, when the Fed cuts interest rates, it causes the stock market to go up and when the Fed raises interest rates, it causes the stock market as a whole to go down. But there is no guarantee how the market will react to any given interest rate change the Fed chooses to make.