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Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is widely expected to step down after the completion of his term in January 2014. This gives him a little more than a year to evaluate how his legacy will impact Central Bank policy and how the economy as a whole will respond to that in the years to come.
At the moment, two names are doing the rounds as Bernanke’s possible successor – Fed Vice Chairman Janet Yellen and Lawrence Summers, earlier an economic adviser to the President and currently a professor at Harvard University.
In any case, the next incumbent will be heir to Bernanke’s policy of making the business of monetary policymaking more transparent. There are views both in favor and against this approach, with the opposition claiming that it places stringent constraints on the ability of his successors to react to economic problems.
From the very beginning of his term, Bernanke has laid special emphasis on unveiling the decision making process of the Federal Reserve to the media and public alike. Starting with the release of the FOMC’s long-term projections for GDP, unemployment and inflation, the process saw a high point when Bernanke conducted the Fed’s first ever post meeting news conference in April 2011.
The attempt has clearly been to move from a discretionary approach, shrouded in ambiguity to one where rules and guidelines become pre-eminent. The Fed will now set bands on specific levels of unemployment and inflation which will indicate when it could affect a change in interest rates.
The idea is to provide a strong assurance that borrowing will remain cheaper over the long term while maintaining the Fed’s freedom to react to changing economic conditions. This has clear implications for the economy as a whole but for the financial sector in particular, since this sector has a nearly direct cause-and-effect relationship with monetary policy.
Of course, the current interest rate environment is a direct result of QE3, which has pushed interest rates to near zero levels. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke expects rates to remain at such levels till mid 2015. This has led to the flurry of refinancing on individual mortgages, which has resulted in large profits from origination fees.
However, low interest rates have pushed interest income to the floor. This has forced bank to depend on non-interest revenue sources. JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM - Analyst Report) and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC - Analyst Report) have emerged as the two most stable banks in the wake of the 2008 crisis. Together, they account for about 44% of the mortgage volume in the economy. Despite the prevailing soft interest rates, their sterling performances in the recent quarters are allowing them to charge customers more in transaction costs.
But the larger issue is that the banking giants – including Bank of America (BAC - Analyst Report), Citigroup (C - Analyst Report) and Goldman Sachs Group, Inc (GS - Analyst Report) – were supposed to behave differently as a result of the shift in the Fed’s outlook. The idea was that the reaction to any Fed action would be muted at best, reducing market volatility. But an unforeseen and possibly unnecessary side effect has been that there is an excessive focus on the data and forecasts released by the Fed.
So has the Fed become the centre of attention this time as the only indicator of the state of the economy which matters in the end? And has its role as a key policymaker diminished as a result of these initiatives.
The answer is probably both yes and no. One opinion is that the promise of a clear long term direction has helped reduce market volatility and has helped business adopt a clearer long term perspective. This is the case with banks and other financial institutions, which see the clear promise of a soft interest rate regime over the long term.
Whether such policy rules have left the Fed with enough room to maneuver is still up for debate. The ongoing round of bond purchases has no value or time based constraints which point to a certain degree of flexibility. But whether this direction is the right one is too close to call as of now.