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.

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.