The Fed's decision not to taper was a protest

But do they protest too much?

The Fed’s decision to surprise the market by NOT tapering last Wednesday was clearly intended as a protest at the market’s interest rate expectations and maybe also told us that now Larry Summers has been forced shamefully out of the contest, the front-runner to replace Mr Bernanke, San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellen, is already easing herself quietly into the Chairman’s seat.

The FOMC’s shock tactic certainly had the desired effect, sending Treasury yields tumbling and forcing estimates for the timing of the first Fed Funds hike further into the distance.

My guess, however, would be that this is will be brief victory for the Fed, and maybe ultimately a Pyrrhic one, endangering its credibility; the reason being that the Fed’s actions and statements are littered with inconsistencies.

The Fed’s own prognoses for the economy, the Summary of Economic Projections (SEP) would have us believe that by the end of 2016 the US will be enjoying an employment rate between 5.4 per cent to 5.9 per cent, very close to the FOMC’s own estimate for the long-run "full employment" rate which the economy can support without inflation getting out of hand, of 5.2 per cent to 5.8 per cent.  However, extraordinarily, the SEP also tells us that inflation will be at or near the 2 per cent target, but that the nominal Fed Funds rate will still only be at 2 per cent (meaning the real rate will be near zero).

This set of outcomes would represent an unheard of state of affairs; for instance, the standard piece of theory used by economists to predict the  appropriate level for interest rates, given prevailing unemployment and inflation rates, the so-called Taylor rule, would suggest a Fed Funds rate close to the long-run neutral level, which the FOMC itself estimates as 4 per cent!

When asked about these inconsistencies at the post-meeting press conference Chairman Bernanke said that “there may be possibly several reasons” for their end-2016 Fed Funds rate expectation being still far below the long-run neutral level but the “primary reason for that low value is that we expect that a number of factors, including the slow recovery of the housing sector, continued fiscal drag, perhaps continued effects from the financial crisis, may still prove to be headwinds to the recovery”.

Really? Eight years after the Financial crisis peaked? Why exactly? Show a little more faith in the US economy’s "animal spirits" please, Mr Bernanke but, hang on, your growth estimates for the next few years, with real GDP growth forecasts of 3.0 per cent in 2014, 3.25 per cent in 2015, and 2.9 per cent in 2016, are really quite upbeat? They don’t suggest that the crisis will still by then be inflicting the sort of structural damage that would call for the bizarre combination of economic variables and interest rates which you are trying to convince us will pertain?

My feeling would be that the Fed, like the BOE, will have to raise rates far earlier and faster than it would have us expect. Not tapering would have delivered an effective slap on the wrist to the market, the combination of the SEP and the forward interest rate guidance together meant "they did protest too much".

Ben Bernanke Photograph: Getty Images

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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