Expectations for tomorrow's J-Hole speech by the venerable Ben Bernanke vary from the mundane "things-we-can-still-do; monitoring-situation" to the exuberant "we'll-print-our-way-out-of-this-mess-no-matter-what-and-I've-got-your-back-for-anything-more-than-a-1%-drop-in-the-Russell". We suspect, like Morgan Stanley's Vince Reinhart that a lot of people are going to be grossly disappointed as the FOMC (C for Committee) meeting is so close and the election being just around the corner means playing-down any miracle-making. Instead we suspect it will be more of the same - disappointment in economic performance, could do better, closely monitoring, Fed-has-tools; i.e. a replay of most of his recent speeches in tone. Reinhart does see some room for surprise though - especially on conditional policy rules (and the potential problems with over-reaching their mandate).
Vincent Reinhart, Morgan Stanley: The Message from the Mountains
We have had low expectations for significant news from Chairman Bernanke’s Jackson Hole address for some time for two reasons.
- First, he respects that the Federal Open Market Committee is a committee. That is, monetary policy actions are group decisions and it is inappropriate to front run the outcome of a democratic process.
- Second, he wants to keep a relatively low profile during an election year when the Federal Reserve is already a hot-button campaign issue. His speeches and testimonies over the past few months—even his semi-annual report on monetary policy—have been short, factual, and uneventful.
What does he have to do? He has to convey that the Fed has been disappointed in the economy’s performance, that policymakers are inclined to provide additional accommodation soon unless there is a significant and sustained improvement, and that they will closely monitor the situation. Essentially, all he needs to do is repeat portions of the statement and minutes from the July-August meeting. Along the way, he will highlight that it is a beautiful venue for a conference, that they are about to hear interesting papers, and that many fiscal challenge remain unanswered.
The main possibility for surprise is if he addresses the ongoing work within the Fed on conditional policy rules. The last set of minutes referred several times to discussions of rules and more open-end policy commitments. Up to now, the Fed has been using its policy instruments in an unconditional way, in that it announces a program of fixed duration and fixed amount. Most academic work, as will be discussed in the formal program at Jackson Hole, suggests that a rule linking the policy instrument to economic outcomes or the outlook performs better.
The idea is that the Fed could agree, for instance, to keep the funds rate target at zero as long as they have an economic forecast that is short of their mission. The problem is that the mission at the heart of Fed policy-making is ambiguous. In the Federal Reserve Act, the Congress tells the Fed to foster maximum employment and stable prices but is silent on how to weigh deviations from the two objectives or how quickly those deviations should be eliminated. The monetary policymakers at the Fed are a diverse group of people who disagree on how to fill this silence. If they can come to terms with this issue, then they can offer more open-ended assurance to financial market participants and the public at large.
Chairman Bernanke is unlikely to offer a Solomonic solution, but his speech would be more interesting if he relayed where they are in the process.