MacroScope

The chairman’s challenge: Bernanke says ‘taper,’ markets hear ‘tighten’

For a central bank that likes to tout the importance of clear communication, the Federal Reserve sure knows how to be obtuse when it wants to. Take Bernanke’s testimony before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress last month. His prepared remarks were reliably dovish, emphasizing weakness in the labor market and offering no hint of an imminent end to the current stimulus program, which involves the monthly purchase of $85 billion in assets.

It was during the question and answer session that the real fireworks came. Asked about the prospect for curtailing such bond buys, Bernanke said:

If we see continued improvement and we have confidence that that’s going to be sustained then we could in the next few meetings … take a step down in our pace of purchases. If we do that it would not mean that we are automatically aiming towards a complete wind down. Rather we would be looking beyond that to see how the economy evolves and we could either raise or lower our pace of purchases going forward.

Those three little words, “next few meetings,” proved rather costly to global financial markets – about a trillion bucks a word in stock value losses.

Was it a miscalculation or a trial balloon, investors wondered. Rather hawkish comments from normally dovish regional Fed presidents like Eric Rosengren of Boston and John Williams of San Francisco seemed to cement the notion that this was a concerted message. It remains to be seen how Bernanke will navigate the issue at Wednesday’s press conference, one of only four per year.

Roubini takes on the ECB

It was fun to watch. Nouriel Roubini, NYU economist and crisis personality, was one of just five carefully selected individuals at a large gathering in the International Monetary Fund HQ1 building’s towering atrium who actually got to ask questions of the policymakers on stage.

Roubini was characteristically biting in his critique of conventional orthodoxy, singling out the European Central Bank for not having done enough to stem the euro zone’s two-year financial crisis. He challenged the notion that the ECB is powerless to boost growth further, suggesting — to the clear discomfort of some policymakers in the room — that measures to weaken the currency could provide a badly-needed boost to exports:

I saw that on the panel there are four central bankers and the panel is about fiscal policy and sovereign debt. So the natural question is then to think maybe about what could be the contribution of central banks in resolving sovereign debt issues. Now, one simple answer would be to just monetize very large budget deficits and I understand why a central bank would say that’s a no-no.

Who are hedge funds dating?

The world of hedge funds is as mysterious as it is profitable, and remains highly opaque even after a raft of new reforms aimed at strengthening financial stability. While there is general agreement among policymakers that the the so-called shadow banking system was at the epicenter of the financial crisis of 2008, hedge funds still face little or no regulatory scrutiny, despite their size and importance in financial markets.

That worries Andrew Lo, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. For him, the basic registration requirements for hedge funds are not nearly sufficient to give regulators a broad sense of the potential risks present in the markets. On the sidelines of an International Monetary Fund meeting, Lo compared the relationship to that of a parent keeping tabs on a growing teenage child.

Let’s say you’re a parent and your child has started dating. You don’t necessarily need to know everything they are doing, but you’d at least like to know who they are going out with.