Fed, in historic shift, to brief media on policy

By @ibtimes on

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke will break nearly 100 years of tradition at the U.S. central bank next month when he begins talking to the media after policy meetings.

Bernanke will kick off a program of four-times-a-year news conferences on April 27 following a regularly scheduled two-day Fed meeting on monetary policy, the central bank said on Thursday. It will be the first regularly scheduled briefing by a Fed chairman in the central bank's history.

The decision to hold news conference is the latest in a series of steps the Fed has taken under Bernanke to increase transparency. .

The announcement brings the U.S. central bank, which was founded in 1913, into line with its peers from the other Group of Seven rich nations.

With reams of market commentary devoted to parsing the Fed's post-meeting statements, the central bank hopes the briefings give it an opportunity to convey more nuance on policy than its brief statements can.

But it is not without risks. With investors hanging on every word of the powerful Fed chairman, any communications missteps could roil financial markets.

While it does give Bernanke an opportunity to clarify any market misinterpretation of the policy statement, it also opens the door to misinterpretation of what he says, said Kevin Flanagan, chief fixed-income strategist at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. He's still going to be very careful.

Congressional and public outcry for greater Fed disclosure has grown louder in the wake of the recent financial crisis, when the Fed undertook extensive unorthodox emergency measures that have met with stiff criticism in some quarters.

The Fed said Bernanke would hold a briefing after each policy meeting at which officials provide their quarterly economic forecasts, which fall in June and November this year.

The introduction of regular press briefings is intended to further enhance the clarity and timeliness of the Federal Reserve's monetary policy communication, the central bank said.

In a related move, the Fed said it would release its policy statement at 12:30 p.m. (1630 GMT) on those days, instead of the usual 2:15 p.m. (1815 GMT). The Fed's policy panel meets a total of eight times a year.

OPENING THE DOOR

The Fed has a reputation for conducting its operations behind closed doors and shielding details of its decision-making from view.

Despite a gradual shift to greater openness in recent years, the Fed has fought to keep some of the details of its operations secret. This week, it lost a court battle to withhold the names of banks that had taken emergency loans from its last-resort lending facility during the financial crisis.

To make its operations more open, the central bank has in recent years begun issuing its forecasts quarterly, rather than twice a year, and moved up the publication of minutes of policy meetings to three weeks from about six weeks.

It did not begin announcing its policy moves until 1994.

Since the financial crisis, Bernanke has stepped up efforts to explain the central bank's actions to the public, giving two extensive television interviews and delivering speeches at which reporters have been able to ask questions.

Janet Yellen, the Fed's vice chairman, has led a subcommittee since November to examine the central bank's communications practices. The Fed said on Thursday it would continue to review its policies in the interest of ensuring accountability and increasing public understanding.

It may take some time for financial markets to adapt to the Fed's new communications plan.

ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet's attention to the ECB's communications style is credited by some analysts for improving the bank's image in financial markets over its 12-year history, and even for a stronger performance of the euro currency.

Under the ECB's first president, Wim Duisenberg, the bank was criticized for an inconsistent and unclear style of communicating its intentions, which may have contributed to a 25 percent fall of the euro against the dollar over two years.

Trichet has adopted systematic language to describe monetary policy, including code phrases that markets came to recognize as having specific meanings. The phrase strong vigilance, for example, signals a near-term interest rate rise.

(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Neil Stempleman and Dan Grebler)

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