Poker-faced Fed chief buys time for options

JACKSON HOLE, Wyoming Mon Aug 29, 2011 12:48am BST

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testifies before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Enhanced Oversight After the Financial Crisis: The Wall Street Reform Act at One Year on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 21, 2011. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testifies before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Enhanced Oversight After the Financial Crisis: The Wall Street Reform Act at One Year on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 21, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Yuri Gripas

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JACKSON HOLE, Wyoming (Reuters) - Like a skilled poker player, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke kept some cards close to his vest when facing fellow central bankers in cowboy country.

In doing so, he may have bought himself time to play the strongest hand possible when he is ready.

Bernanke's speech on Friday at an annual Fed conference here came at a time of alarm about a fading U.S. economic recovery and concern about the health of Europe's banks.

Many were looking for a clear signal the central bank is ready to step in with further monetary policy stimulus after Bernanke led the Fed into taking massive stimulus measures over the last few years.

He acknowledged slower-than-hoped-for growth in the world's largest economy and warned that high long-term unemployment could leave lasting scars.

Although he said the Fed would consider what more it could do to boost growth -- comments that helped push up U.S. share prices -- he stopped short of outlining new moves, unlike his Jackson Hole speech last year that was seen as opening the door to a second round of massive bond buying.

"Not much detail," was the curt analysis of Bernanke's speech by a prominent analyst at the exclusive retreat, which brings together an international elite of policymakers, economic thinkers and well-connected financial gurus.

CAREFUL GOING

The Fed is caught between a flagging recovery and persistently high unemployment on one side, and political pressures against more monetary easing on the other. It has already pushed interest rates close to zero and bought $2.3 trillion in bonds to try to lower longer-term borrowing costs.

The Fed is also split internally about what to do next, adding to the challenge faced by Bernanke.

Participants at the conference gave the chairman -- who looked relaxed in faded jeans and a polo shirt -- high marks for deftly maneuvering the fine line between offering hope of monetary relief without overcommitting the central bank.

"The Fed is going to continue to tread slowly," said Barry Eichengreen, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

The most tantalizing tidbit Bernanke provided was that the Fed's next policy meeting will run for two days instead of one on September 20-21.

A two-day meeting will allow Fed staff to present studies of possible courses of action and will let each of the 17 members of the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee air views on policy and where the economy is heading.

The expansion of the meeting underscores the degree to which Bernanke is worried about high unemployment, weak manufacturing data, stock market volatility and strains at European banks.

It also suggests he may see a need to line up support for more action at the Fed, where three policymakers dissented against an early-August decision to let financial markets know the central bank expects to hold interest rates at ultra-low levels through the middle of 2013.

The opportunity for a fuller discussion suggests Bernanke is inclined to loosen monetary policy further but wants more data, such as the August jobs report due on Friday, to buttress his case.

One idea clearly on the agenda is more bond buying matched by a draining of bank reserves to keep the size of the Fed's already bloated balance sheet in check.

This could help pressure longer-term interest rates lower without fueling fears in financial markets the Fed's massive balance sheet might eventually fuel inflation.

HEARTS AND MINDS

By emphasizing the process rather than tools, Bernanke may have been seeking to smooth over the rift exposed by the three who cast "no" votes at the central bank's last policy meeting.

Attendees at the conference here said the risk of future dissent would not deter Bernanke from acting, but that the Fed chairman would seek as much support as possible.

"Anything the Fed does will be more effective in terms of calming the markets and restoring confidence if they are unanimous when they do it," Eichengreen, a panelist at one of the conference sessions, told Reuters Insider.

Detailed analysis by Fed staff economists on the possible benefits of further balance sheet measures may also help a core group of Fed policymakers close to Bernanke, that includes Vice Chair Janet Yellen and New York Fed President William Dudley, overcome skepticism about the effectiveness of new moves.

"They're done and they know it. They've got nothing left," scoffed an analyst attending the conference.

Despite the doubts, discussions on the sidelines of the event made clear some at the Fed believe there is evidence an effort to further flatten longer-term interest rates could help the economy.

One U.S. monetary policy insider was heartened by the recommendation by International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde at the conference that central bankers dive back into unconventional measures to provide additional monetary help.

KUDOS FROM THE CROWD

Bernanke also got high marks for shifting some of the burden for restoring growth to governments and politicians, a theme also emphasized by Lagarde.

While addressing the importance of cutting deficits, politicians should also be sensitive to the fragile recovery and develop a less nerve-wracking process for making budget decisions than the showdown in Congress that brought the United States close to a debt default this summer, he said.

"To me the more interesting part of the chairman's remarks was the shot across the bow of the government saying, 'Don't keep layering expectations on the Federal Reserve guys, you have a job to do,'" Columbia University professor Glenn Hubbard told Reuters Insider.

Bernanke arrived in Wyoming several days early and told attendees he had gone to a rodeo with his family. He jokingly told the conference that seeing that slice of Americana had given him a lot to think about.

He may have decided a little bit of cowboy reticence would suit his Jackson Hole message.

(With additional reporting by Dan Burns and Ann Saphir; Editing by Maureen Bavdek)

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