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Market volatility clouds recovery

Transparency effort by Fed roils markets

The Washington Post, AFP-JIJI

The Federal Reserve’s new communication strategy was supposed to make it easier to decipher the intentions of the famously secretive institution.

Markets, however, seem to have missed the memo.

Investors increasingly have focused on predicting the moment the Fed will start to pull back on its massive stimulus program. Could it come as early as this week, when the central bank’s policymaking committee meets in Washington? Or will the Fed wait until the end of the year, when the fiscal drag has run its course? Will it make the announcement with a news conference or forge ahead with little explanation?

It’s the type of parlor game the Fed had hoped to avoid. Instead, it has tried to convince the markets that the date is less important than the data.

Fed officials deliberately chose not to attach a time frame to their easy-money policies when developing their forward guidance for the public last year. Instead, for the first time, the Fed formally linked its decisions to the health of the economy: Interest rates would remain near zero, at least until the unemployment rate hits 6.5 percent or inflation reaches 2.5 percent. And the Fed would keep pumping money into the recovery until there was “substantial improvement” in the job market.

The goal was to help investors come to better conclusions on their own by revealing the public data that Fed officials use as guideposts. In theory, that means interest rates would hew more closely to incoming data than to Fed pronouncements. But, as it turns out, there are many ways to parse the numbers.

“They kind of threw out these conditions,” said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JPMorgan. “They’re telling us something but not telling us something.”

Those crossed signals carry significant consequences. Fed communications help shape investors’ expectations for monetary policy and the trajectory of the economy. Those expectations can influence interest rates that ultimately affect everyone from hedge fund managers to home buyers.

Confusion over the Fed’s plans has kept stock markets jittery in recent weeks, with the Dow Jones industrial average swinging nearly 300 points one day on central bank speculation.

U.S. stocks surged Monday a day before the Fed meeting as expectations mounted that it will make no sharp changes to its economic stimulus after all.

At the close of trade, the Dow Jones industrial average was up 109.90 points, or 0.73 percent, at 15,180.08. Earlier in Europe, London’s FTSE 100 index of leading shares climbed 0.35 percent to end at 6,330.49 points, Frankfurt’s DAX 30 index jumped 1.08 percent to 8,215.73 points, and in Paris the CAC 40 soared 1.54 percent to finish at 3,863.66 points.

Part of the problem behind the market volatility has been muddy economic data that do not provide a clear signal of where the recovery is headed. The Fed also has left itself plenty of wiggle room to interpret the data. It did not define what “substantial improvement” would be required to dial back its $85 billion-a-month in bond purchases, and it has suggested that it could leave interest rates untouched even after its unemployment or inflation thresholds are met.

In fact, there is an unusual level of disagreement even among top Fed officials over how to read the economic data and what that means for its stimulus efforts, rattling markets even more.

The Fed is led by a board of seven governors based in Washington and 12 reserve bank presidents from districts across the country. The influential policy-setting committee consists of the governors and a rotating cast of four reserve bank presidents. For decades, open disagreement among officials was frowned upon under the tight leadership of former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. Chairman Ben Bernanke, on the other hand, has welcomed debate among members as part of the central bank’s move toward greater transparency. That has given them more opportunities to influence the market, for better or for worse.

San Francisco Fed President John Williams interpreted the data as showing a rosier economic picture that could allow the central bank to begin cutting back its monthly purchases of $85 billion in bonds as soon as this summer. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard is less confident about the recovery but suggested bond purchases should continue because he is worried about the data on inflation. New York Fed President William Dudley said any reductions will be made slowly and carefully, while Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker said the central bank should stop the program right away, cold turkey.

Even Bernanke has gotten caught up in the dating game. In prepared congressional testimony last month, the chairman warned of the dangers of ending the Fed’s stimulus efforts too early in the recovery. But when pressed by lawmakers, he acknowledged that the Fed could begin to reduce its bond purchases in its next few policy meetings.

Bernanke has tried to cast the move as less stimulus, but not necessarily a step toward tighter policy. Markets do not seem to be buying the line. Official Fed communications have tried to emphasize that the central bank has the flexibility to respond to economic data as it rolls in, and the policy statement slated for release Wednesday is likely to make the same point.

The question remains whether the markets are willing to listen. “This kind of flexibility means more uncertainty,” said former Fed Gov. Larry Meyer, who now heads the consulting firm Macroeconomic Advisers.