News Column

Anticipation Builds for Bernanke's Remarks from Wyoming

August 31, 2012

Mark Davis

Federal Reserve

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke can always draw a crowd. He may struggle to satisfy the expectations of the one that's gathering this morning in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Economists and investors are cued up for a meaningful message from America's key central banker when he speaks at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City's 36th annual symposium on monetary policy.

This is the forum where Bernanke two years ago foreshadowed the Fed's second round of bond buying to help the economy. Many would like to see him tip his hat to more Fed action, perhaps at its policy meeting set for Sept. 12 and 13.

"Everybody at this point is much more fixated at what Chairman Bernanke says on Friday in terms of setting monetary policy," Jim Baird, chief investment officer of Plante Moran Financial Advisors, told MarketWatch on Wednesday.

Economist David Rosenberg seized on the comment as evidence that markets have become somewhat dependant on the Fed and its European counterpart, the European Central Bank.

"It's all about how the Fed and ECB can continue to jawbone investors into believing that central bankers have the tools to pave the roads of the future into riches," Rosenberg wrote in a note to clients.

Bernanke, however, will be hard pressed to promise anything. The speech will be subtle, as were his comments two years ago on policy.

He also has been unable so far to build enough support for additional action among the group of Fed governors and regional Fed presidents who vote on changes. The Fed's July meeting disappointed some observers because the Fed did not announce new policy steps.

Under the title "Monetary Policy Since the Crisis," Bernanke's speech is likely to argue that the Fed's steps so far have made a significant difference and that policymakers have tools to do more.

And he may urge Congress to stimulate the economy with spending and tax policies now while also addressing future budget deficits.

But it's starting to sound like a campaign stump speech -- repetitive.

"He's laid out the parameters," said Chad Stone, chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "He doesn't have the votes" at the Fed.

Recent economic news has been a bit better, which makes it tougher to build a case for added help from the Fed, even though it has not been good enough to halt expectations for action.

The economy's gross domestic product grew at a 1.7 percent pace in the second quarter, according to estimates this week that were an upgrade from previous estimates.

Economists say 2 percent growth is needed to bring down the jobless rate.

Stone said "1.7 percent is a lousy growth rate for an economy with 8.3 percent unemployment."

Housing prices across the nation in July were up from a year ago, the first time that has happened since 2010. Personal spending rose in July, the first increase in three months.

Even Bernanke, however, will have to wait until next Friday for the August employment report, the forecasts for which remain a tepid 120,000 new jobs and the same 8.3 percent unemployment rate.

Bernanke will command attention in Jackson Hole partly because his address comes at a critical time.

Europe's fiscal problems have forced Bernanke's counterpart in Europe to cancel his scheduled Jackson Hole appearance. Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, is staying home from the celebrated annual gathering of the world's central bankers.

Instead, Draghi may upstage Bernanke a bit. He leads next week's meeting of the European Central Bank that will target the next steps in addressing Europe's government debt crisis.

The decisions reached over there will affect Europe's trade partners from China to Kansas City.

"I think that's more important in the grand scheme of things," said Scott Anderson, chief economist for Bank of the West in San Francisco.



Source: (c)2012 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Distributed by MCT Information Services