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December 16th 2009

Bernanke’s Background and Near-Term US Monetary Policy

The big story of the last month in forex markets has been the possibility that the Fed could soon hike interest rates, which would upend some of most stable (and gainful) strategies currently being employed by traders. As a result, the markets will certainly scrutinize the statement that accompanies today’s conclusion of the monthly rate-setting meeting, for any clues about the likelihood of such rate hikes. As I suggested in the title of this post, I think the best place to start in trying to forecast the near-term direction of US monetary policy is the man with the finger on the button – Ben Bernanke.

Bernanke’s academic background offers valuable insight into his approach to monetary policy- an approach that has been fairly consistent so far and probably will remain that way, barring any unforeseen developments. Specifically, Bernanke is/was a scholar of the Great Depression. He has argued that the fault for prolonging the Depression (though not for Depression itself) lies with the Fed and the US government, whose responses to the crisis he lambasted as conservative. In short, policymakers continued to worry about inflation, when they should have been concerned about deflation, since it was a deflationary spiral – falling prices beget expectations of falling prices, repeated ad nauseum – that prevented the economy from recovering in a timely manner.

Bernanke carried this notion – that falling prices are less desirable than rising prices – into the Federal Reserve Bank. [Though to be fair, it was already in vogue, thanks to the actions of his predecessor, Alan Greenspan]. Summarized James Grant (of the eponymous Grant’s Interest Rate Observer) : “Under the intellectual leadership of Mr. Bernanke, the Fed would tolerate no sagging of the price level. It would insist on a decent minimum of inflation. It staked out this position in the face of the economic opening of China and India and the spread of digital technology. To the common-sense observation that these hundreds of millions of willing new hands, and gadgets, might bring down prices at Wal-Mart, the Fed turned a deaf ear. It would save us from “deflation” by generating a sweet taste of inflation (not too much, just enough).”

Under Bernanke, the Fed’s response to the credit crisis was entirely consistent with this framework. It was the first industrialized Central Bank to cut interest rates, quickly reducing its benchmark Federal Funds Rate to 0%, a record low. The second stage involved literally printing more than $1 Trillion and injecting it directly into US credit markets. The Fed silenced its critics by insisting that the potential for inflation in the future doesn’t compare in seriousness to the possibility of deflation in the present.

Going forward, there’s reason to believe that Bernanke will remain dovish towards inflation. For one thing, Bernanke himself has declared this to be the case: “Mr. Bernanke fears deflation and the effect of tight money and rising interest rates on incipient economic growth.  The Fed Chairman has said so often that rates will stay low for an extended period that the markets have taken it as fact; the Fed will not raise rates.”

EU UK US Interest Rates 2009
The markets have given Bernanke the benefit of the doubt in the short-term, but are pricing in a 50% chance of a rate hike before June 2010. Personally, I think it could be even later. Especially if housing prices experience a “double dip” and unemployment remains high, it seems unlikely that Bernanke would move to tighten. Regardless, he is known for his transparency, which means that when the Fed actually moves to hike rates, chances are investors will know about a month in advance.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, News, US Dollar | 2 Comments »

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2 Comments of “Bernanke’s Background and Near-Term US Monetary Policy”

  1. Dollar Could Go Either Way, Depending on the Carry Trade | Forex Blog Says:

    […] Archives « Bernanke’s Background and Near-Term US Monetary Policy | Home […]

  2. Bernanke and the Dollar...Part Two. How the politicization of the Fed and monetary policy are eroding confidence in the Dollar. | Forex Blog Says:

    […] December, I posted about Ben Bernanke (Bernanke’s Background and Near-Term US Monetary Policy), specifically about how a basic understanding of Bernanke’s academic background and […]

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