For one weekend every year, the economic world turns its watchful eyes away from New York and Washington and to Jackson Hole, Wyo. This weekend, the Kansas City Federal Reserve will again host the annual Federal Reserve conference in the valley just outside Yellowstone National Park. Recent economic troubles have brought intense scrutiny to the meeting, and markets will be watching Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's Friday morning speech particularly closely for the barest hint of future policy moves.
For those who are not Fed policy aficionados, here are some things to watch for in the news out of Jackson Hole:
No policy changes.
Despite the heavy attention given to the annual symposium, no policy is enacted there. That is a job for the Fed at its regular meetings. However, the symposium is still important for many other reasons. There is, of course, the possibility of Bernanke hinting at a new policy announcement in his remarks. But behind the scenes, plenty of consequential action also takes place. "What makes Jackson Hole a more interesting occasion than most is the fact that [Fed leaders] are all there at once together. And so if [Bernanke] wants to do arm-twisting, if he wants to do convincing ... that's an opportunity," says Vincent Reinhart, former director of the Fed's Division of Monetary Affairs and resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Plenty of room for interpretation.
In his remarks last year, Bernanke set the stage for a second round of quantitative easing, known as QE2, a policy move in which the Federal Reserve purchases treasury securities in order to increase the money supply and stimulate the economy. With that in mind, watchers will certainly be parsing Bernanke's remarks closely for inklings of groundwork on other new moves. "The important thing about the Jackson Hole speech and what to look for is a commitment by the Fed to do whatever it takes" to improve the U.S. economy, says Reinhart.
Bernanke will very likely invoke in his speech the Fed's "dual mandate": to maintain stable price levels and to maximize employment. How he "weights" those two elements can be key to understanding what policies he might favor, says Reinhart. For example, if Bernanke does not stress inflation as a threat, or if he says that deflation has re-emerged as a threat to economic growth, says Reinhart, "that's a strong signal that he believes there's scope to do more easing."
Possible hints of QE3
Indeed, the phrase on everybody's lips in advance of Jackson Hole has been QE3. When Bernanke set the stage for QE2 at Jackson Hole 2010, the economy was in need of stimulus, with unemployment at 9.6 percent and slow growth. The situation is arguably little better now, and new poor economic data, like the latest discouraging manufacturing figures, have fueled hopes on Wall Street that a third round is coming to further jumpstart the sluggish recovery.
In addition, the new fiscal belt-tightening in the United States intensifies need for loose monetary policy, says Jason Pride, director of investment strategy at investment and wealth management firm Glenmede. He believes that drastically tightened federal spending could "constrict" the economy. To counteract that, says Pride, "monetary policy needs to be balanced against that and done in a way to keep the economy from slipping into a more detrimental downward spiral." He adds, "I think there's no doubt that Bernanke's communication is going to lean on the side of easing."
...But maybe not.
Still, many analysts do not expect a new round of easing, and there are myriad reasons to believe that QE3 won't happen. Though the U.S. economy is in need of stimulus, inflation has crept higher in recent months, making pumping more money into the system less attractive. In addition, the Federal Open Market Committee, which oversees the Fed's buying and selling of treasury securities, is already showing signs of divisions, with three of the committee's 12 members having opposed the committee's recent decision to maintain low interest rates through 2013. This makes the chances of committee agreement on QE3 look shakier than ever.
Corrected on : Corrected on 08/25/11: An earlier version of this article misstated the title for Jason Pride. He is director of investment strategy.