Pour your heart out, Ben Bernanke

Marketplace Staff May 9, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: We pay pretty close attention here to what Ben Bernanke says. Mostly because we have to. We’ll have another chance to parse Bernanke’s words tomorrow when the Fed meets. Best guesses are short-term interest rates will rise another quarter point. But commentator Carolyn Baum says we shouldn’t have to guess at all.

CAROLYN BAUM: Recently, CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo cornered Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke at the White House Correspondents’ dinner.She asked him whether the markets got it right the previous week when they took his congressional testimony to mean the Fed was done raising rates. Bernanke said no. He’d told Congress that he might pause, that’s all.Stocks and bonds tanked.The reaction was understandable. After all, the prices of treasury bills and notes are tied to what traders expect the Fed to do.The reason markets react at all is they’ve been conditioned to focus on what Fed officials say. But in a perfect world of Fed transparency, markets wouldn’t be so jittery.In this perfect world, the Fed would set an inflation target, publicize its forecasts for economic growth and inflation, even reveal the secrets of its forecasting model.So markets would react only to real economic developments and not hang on every word as they did when Alan Greenspan was boss.Ben Bernanke is a big advocate of central bank transparency.If he gets his way, it’ll be a tough adjustment for financial markets that thrive on leaks and intimations of private chats with Fed officials.Hedge funds and other big players might lose their advantage. A level playing field means everyone would have the same chance to decide what new information means for the conduct of monetary policy. And they’d all place bets accordingly.We’re nowhere near that point yet. Still, it’s nice to reflect on what life would be like if Bernanke spoke and people listened but no one cared.RYSSDAL: Bloomberg columnist Carolyn Baum is the author of the book “Just What I Said.”

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