Banking/Financial Institutions

Bernanke moves to more open Fed

The Federal Reserve took another step toward transparency
on Thursday, announcing that Chairman Ben Bernanke will begin holding quarterly
press briefings to discuss policy decisions.

Watchers of the central bank say the push for more transparency likely came from the top, and might have been driven by need for the Fed to further explain its moves amid the recent flare-up of criticism over its policy decisions.

Over the last several years, the Fed has gradually moved from its reputation as a cryptic and opaque institution to become more transparent, as Bernanke has written editorials and talked to the press about its policy moves.

{mosads}This evolution will continue with Thursday’s announcement,
which means Bernanke will hold live press conferences after the Federal Open
Markets Committee (FOMC) unveils its quarterly policy decisions — including
determinations on interest rates and its quantitative easing efforts. The press
conferences will be broadcast online.

It also puts Bernanke’s imprint on the institution following
the long rule of former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, who was known for his
opaque statements about the economy.

Phillip Swagel, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, said Bernanke has long pushed for a more transparent Fed.

“It’s always been [a priority] for him, even back when Greenspan was chair and Bernanke was [a Fed] governor,” he said. “They almost had this polite — ‘war of words’ is too strong, but this back-and-forth about the value of transparency.”

Swagel, who served as the Treasury Department’s assistant
secretary for economic policy under President George W. Bush, said holding
press conferences brings the Fed more in line with other central banks like the
European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan. Those institutions have adopted
regular press conferences by their chairmen in recent years to explain policy
moves.

Analysts said they were not surprised by the decision, which
was foreshadowed by other Bernanke moves made during the financial crisis, and
as he moved through a tough confirmation for a second term as chairman.

“I think Bernanke had been kind of signaling something along
these lines for a while,” said Brian Gardner, senior vice president of
Washington research at Keefe, Bruyette and Woods. “In this day and age, just
putting out a statement is ineffective.”

“This is a constructive step for Federal Reserve
communications,” added Donald Kohn, a senior fellow at the Brookings
Institution and former vice chairman of the Fed. “This will give the chairman a
chance to put the FOMC’s decision into the context of its economic outlook and
field questions that will enable him to clarify actions and counter
misperceptions.”

The decision to have Bernanke defend Fed moves on camera
comes as criticism of the central bank has climbed to new heights.

Ever since the Fed decided to embark on a second round of
quantitative easing, it has had to fend off criticisms from both at home and
abroad.

Foreign officials have complained that the “QE2” program, in
which the Fed buys back $600 billion of Treasury securities in an effort to lower
interest rates and boost private lending, will devalue the dollar.

And in Washington, the Fed has been repeatedly criticized by
several top Republicans, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan
(Wis.) and Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), who contend QE2 will lead to rampant
inflation.

Pence even went so far in the last Congress as to introduce
legislation along with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that would alter the Fed’s
mandate to have it focus exclusively on controlling inflation, as opposed to
its current dual mandate of price stability and maximum employment.

Furthermore, the big Tea Party push that helped win the GOP
control of the House has also boosted the profile of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas),
the longtime and fierce Fed critic.

After Republicans took over the House, the Tea Party
favorite and author of End the Fed was awarded the chairmanship of the
subcommittee that oversees the Fed. In the months since gaining the gavel, he
has used the position to bash the central bank in several hearings.

Giving Bernanke a platform to further explain policy moves
will help combat that criticism, experts say.

“If I were at the Fed, I would be thinking, ‘Look, I’ve got
a good story,’” said Swagel. “An opportunity to get out that story is a good
thing for them.”

“The possibility of press conferences has been discussed for
some time,” said Kohn. “But I suspect the Fed’s perception that some of that
criticism has reflected misunderstandings of its actions and their likely
effects probably made the option of regular periodic conferences seem even more
attractive.”

The Fed has taken several steps in recent months to explain
its decision to the public. Bernanke held a rare press conference in January at
the National Press Club, and sat down in December for an interview with CBS’s
“60 Minutes.” Recent minutes from Fed meetings have indicated that officials
have discussed whether the chairman should hold regular press briefings.

However, making a more public case does carry some dangers
for the Fed.

“I think the markets are going to pay very close attention,”
said Gardner. “If it’s not handled well and they don’t do a good job of
explaining policy and where they think the economy is going, there’s risk, and
they’re going to have to be careful.”

Tags Bob Corker Paul Ryan

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