Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke once again is center stage on Wall Street, as the Federal Open Market Committee meets this week. Will investors be greeted by some big news from Bernanke? Will we see a big market response thanks to some insights from the Fed’s leader or any of its representatives?
Highly unlikely. The sad reality is the Fed just doesn’t have a whole lot left to offer — aside from being the punching bag of Ron Paul and other critics. And to be completely honest, Bernanke and the rest of the Fed don’t really seem all that interested in making a lot of noise right now. Rather the central bank is simply contenting itself with defending its track record and pointing to a hopeful future.
In the words of Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve “continues to explore ways to further increase transparency about its forecasts and policy plans.”
In short, expect the final FOMC session of the year to be long on cheerleading and self-justification, and short on any material policy actions.
It all adds up to a whole lot of nothing from the Federal Reserve — both in the short term and for many months to come. And here’s why:
Rates Going Nowhere
The federal funds rate is the central bank’s most integral tool to spur economic growth, but that tool has been blunt for quite some time. In December 2009, the fed funds rate was lowered to effectively zero. So it simply cannot go any lower. And if you listened to Ben Bernanke in early August, you will recall the Fed chairman was clear about plans to keep interest rates at record lows until mid-2013.
The central bank is waiting for a sign that the economy is out of danger before raising rates — and it’ll be waiting for a long time. The debt crisis in Europe weighs on the market, unemployment remains high, housing remains brutalized and consumers are starting to get jittery again.
Even the Fed Can’t Agree With the Fed
The most interesting policy possibilities from the Fed are not what it will decide, but how members of the Fed committee will debate past actions and the present course of the central bank.
The FOMC had three dissents to its Aug. 9 statement signaling rates might stay near zero for two years, calling for raising rates to stave off inflation sooner rather than later. Two other Fed members believe monetary policy decisions should be more liberal and that the central bank should continue to stimulate the economy and job market at all costs. For instance, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago proposed pushing short-term interest rates at near-zero until the unemployment rate drops below 7%. That could be quite some time — and a stark contrast to the tightening called for by inflation hawks on the other side of the table.