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Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is holding his first press conference today.
We don't know what to expect, frankly. No Fed chairman has ever done anything like this before. At 2:15 p.m. EST today, we'll be live blogging below, sharing Bernanke's remarks and throwing a few of our thoughts into the mix.
Skip down to the live blog if it's past 2:15 EST. Until then, here's some of what we'll be looking for.
Earlier this year, Bernanke was asked by the House Budget Committee whether there was any historical precedent for the economy recovering without a strong housing market. "It's normal for housing and construction to be an important part of the recovery," he answered. No, in other words. We'll be watching what Bernanke has to say about rising interest rates -- key to the housing market -- once the Fed's second quantitative easing campaign ends in June. Several Fed economists made interest rate predictions before the first round of QE ended last year. All were way off -- interest rates actually fell after the Fed stopped buying. The key variable is whether a third round (oh, dear) of quantitative easing might be in the cards if the Fed thought it necessary.
Earnings reports have been battered by rising commodity costs. Meanwhile, consumers are at war with the gas pump. Bernanke recently remarked that the surge in commodity prices should be "transitory." History somewhat bears this out. At the same time, any indication that the Fed will keep monetary policy loose for the foreseeable future gives investors reason to drive prices higher. When asked about rising commodity prices earlier this year, Bernanke chalked most of it up to emerging market growth and a poor harvest season. "The bulk of the increases of commodities prices is a global phenomenon. Inflation here in the U.S. is very, very low," he said.
The Fed has two mandates. Inflation and jobs. You know how pathetic the latter has been over the past three years. The recent recession created by far the largest drop in employment, and the slowest recovery, in recent history. If there's one factor that will influence the Fed to keep monetary policy loose, it's jobs. We'll be watching what Bernanke says about recent improvements in the labor market. Any pessimism means more money printing. Count on that.
The Fed has kept interest rates near zero percent since December 2008 to support the financial system, reduce unemployment, and prevent deflation.
But because low interest rates can also boost prices, the policy has resulted in copious analogies to Greenspan's bubble-building interest rates of the early 2000s, as well as inflation worries aplenty. Many wonder when the Fed will address inflation concerns by raising rates.
Bernanke's likely answer: when it's time. Don't expect much more of an answer. Core inflation remains below where the Fed wants it, and you know about unemployment. Until those factors markedly change, or the Fed begins fretting about inflation expectations, expect the Fed to stay committed to keeping interest rates low for an "extended period," their preferred turn of phrase.
To further encourage business activity by directly lowering medium- and long-term interest rates, the Fed began buying $600 billion of Treasury bills last November, to the cries of pundits screaming bloody murder.
No one knows how much QE2 has helped. The program was always somewhat experimental, and its effectiveness has been hamstrung by a dollar rather than interest rate target and overwhelmed by new Treasury borrowings.
Now let's get right into it.