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.

Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: Herod in the House

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

The spell cast over Theresa May by the youthful Gavin Williamson and Cronus, his pet tarantula, leaves envious Tory rivals accusing him of plotting to succeed the Stand-In Prime Minister. The wily Chief Whip is eyed suspiciously as a baby-faced assassin waiting to pounce.

My tearoom snout whispers that May is more dependent on the fresh-faced schemer (he also served as David Cameron’s PPS) who signed a survival deal bunging the DUP £1bn protection money than she is on David Davis, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd or Boris Johnson. She delegated the reshuffle’s middle and lower ranks to Williamson, but his nous is questioned after he appointed Pudsey’s Stuart Andrew (majority: 331) and Calder Valley’s Craig Whittaker (609) as henchmen. Vulnerable seats are dangerously unprotected when whips don’t speak in the House of Commons.

Left-wing Labour MPs mutter that Jeremy Corbyn is implementing a “King Herod strategy” to prevent the birth of rival messiahs. A former shadow cabinet member insisted that any display of ambition would be fatal. The punishment snubbings of Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna, who had expressed a willingness to serve, were intended to intimidate others into obedience. The assertion was reinforced by an influential apparatchik musing: “John [McDonnell] is looking for a bag carrier, so Chuka could apply for that.” The election has laced the boot tightly on the left foot.

The military career of Barnsley’s Major Dan Jarvis included service in Northern Ireland. Perhaps old acquaintances will be renewed with the allocation to Sinn Fein’s seven MPs of a meeting room next to the Labour squaddie’s office.

Ian Lavery, the burly ex-miner appointed as Labour’s new chair by Jeremy Corbyn, disclosed that he was bombarded with messages urging him to “nut” – that is, headbutt – Boris Johnson when he faced down the Foreign Secretary on TV during the election. I suspect that even Trembling BoJo’s money would be on the Ashington lad in a class war with the Old Etonian.

Campaign tales continue to be swapped. Labour’s victorious Sharon Hodgson helped a family put up a tent. The defeated Lib Dem Sarah Olney was heckled through a letter box by a senior Labour adviser’s five-year-old son: “What’s that silly woman saying? Vote Labour!” Oddest of all was the Tory minister James Wharton informing his opponent Paul Williams that he’d put in a good word for him with Labour HQ. There was no need – Williams won.

The Tory injustice minister Dominic Raab is advertising for an unpaid Westminster “volunteer”, covering only “commuting expenses”. Does he expect them to eat at food banks?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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