Bernankeology

Why so much is read into the words of the Fed chairman.

Following Fed chairman Ben Bernanke's speech yesterday, the usual bout of trying to understand quite how much we can read in to his words has begun. Yet unlike the normally perjorative "Kremlinology" – attempting to infer things from the most minuscule turns of phrase – this Bernankeology is understandable and quite useful.

Central bankers have a strange job. They don't actually have many tools at their disposal; largely just the tripartite decision to raise, lower, or maintain interest rates. Yet many of the outcomes they create come, not from actually using this power, but from creating expectations as to their future use.

Suppose Bernanke knows he is likely to raise interest rates in the first quarter of 2013. Even though his actual power is relatively limited, he can create a wide spectrum of outcomes depending on how he announces this. The market reaction will be extremely different if Bernanke says now that he will raise rates in a years time, compared to if he maintains right up until the day that a rate rise would be inappropriate.

But this power to persuade brings with it its own problems. Just like a legislature, a central bank is fundamentally unable to constrain itself; it can make promises, but everyone knows that it is free to break them at any point.

All of this means that every speech Bernanke gives is likely to be very carefully aimed at creating just the right set of expectations. On the one hand, he can't ever gain a reputation for untrustworthiness, so they have to be scrupulously honest; on the other, actually saying what he believes may create the wrong impression.

Last week, Ryan Avent provided a detailed breakdown of exactly what the benefits of Bernankeology can be, focusing on the Fed's "forward guidance" where it hinted that it would keep interest rates low until at least 2013. He writes:

On the one hand, a pure focus on the language of the Fed's statement indicates that rates are likely to remain low through that period based on the state of the economy... On the other hand, the Fed may be hinting that it will be willing to keep rates low through late 2014 even if the trajectory of the economy warrants a rate increase.

In other words, the Fed might be attempting to commit itself to a deviation from its normal policy rules of the sort that might generate more rapid growth and inflation.

The problem the Fed has is that it needs to generate growth, but that growth is likely to come with relatively high inflation, of the sort which Bernanke has historically fought against. In order to help the economy, he needs to convince "the markets" that interest rates will be kept low even if inflation spirals out of control. The problem is that this, from an inflationary hawk like Bernanke, is unbelievable.

Avent points to a paper (pdf) which breaks down the distinction into two categories:

Delphic, corresponding to the first category above, and Odyssean, corresponding to the second, in which the central bank attempts to commit itself to deviations from typical rules.

Matt Yglesias offers a less refined version of the same strategy, breaking Bernanke's possible responses into an Eeyore response and a Tigger one. Either the Fed chief can "avoid optimistic forecasts as a way of signaling that rates will stay low for a long time," or he "can say we're climbing out of a steep hole so rates will stay low for the next 18 months come what may".

The test for Bernankeologists is to work out whether yesterday's gloomy speech is Odyssean-Eeyore, using gloominess as a mast to bind himself to, or simply Delphic, with the chairman making his most honest predictions and still being pessimistic.

Occupy LA activists march against the Fed in November. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.