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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Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.