Decoding Bernanke

CAMBRIDGE – Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has been struggling to deliver a clear message about the future of Fed policy ever since his May 22 testimony to the US Congress. Indeed, two months later, financial-market participants remain confused about what his message means for the direction of US monetary policy and market interest rates.

Bernanke’s formal statements about the Fed’s two unconventional policies have been clear. First, the Fed is trying to give relatively specific guidance about the future path of the federal funds rate (the overnight rate at which commercial banks lend to each other). Second, the Fed is indicating the conditions that will cause it to start reducing its massive monthly bond-buying program and eventually bring it to an end. Bernanke has emphasized that these two policies are on separate tracks and will respond to different indicators of the economy’s performance.

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), comprising the Fed governors and the presidents of the regional Federal Reserve banks, has agreed that the federal funds rate will remain at its current near-zero level until the unemployment rate drops to 6.5% and can be expected to remain there or decline even further. With unemployment now at 7.6% and falling only slowly, the Fed may not be ready to raise the federal funds rate until 2015.

But there are caveats that make this forward guidance ambiguous – and therefore uninformative. The Fed warns that it might increase the federal funds rate if the anticipated annual inflation rate rises from its current level of a bit less than 2% to more than 2.5%. There is no clue, however, about how that “anticipated future inflation rate” will be determined. So the Fed could, in principle, decide to raise the federal funds rate even before the unemployment rate reaches 6.5%.