Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke moved Wednesday to break down even further the aura of secrecy that historically has enshrouded the institution that sets interest rates and improve communications with investors and the public.
In the job since February 2006, Bernanke said in his announcement that the time has come for the Fed to tell America four times a year — not twice — what its projections are for the health of the U.S. economy. And when it gives that forecast, it will say what it thinks the business environment will be for the following three years — not two.
These forecasts — a kind of Fed report card to consumers and businesses — will state the expected pace of economic growth, the anticipated unemployment rate and whatever policymakers can divine about inflation. However, the Fed also will say expressly — and in unprecedented detail — what the thinking of the policymakers was on a given issue and will furnish more details about whatever risks are in play.
Bernanke called the changes an "important advance" in the Fed's communications strategy.
The first expanded set of reconfigured projections will be released Tuesday at the same time the Fed turns loose to the public the minutes of the policymakers' October meeting.
The announcement marked the biggest move yet by Bernanke to put his imprint on the Fed after succeeding the venerable Chairman Alan Greenspan. One Bernanke mark — given a punctuation point Wednesday — has been his stated desire to make the Fed a more open institution. Greenspan made progress on that front in his 18 1/2 years, but Bernanke has sought to kick open the door even further, providing investors, businesses and individuals with more insights into the thinking of Fed policymakers.
Doing that, said Bernanke, helps the Fed do its job — keeping the economy and inflation on an even keel.
Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at LaSalle Bank, said the changes will give Fed watchers plenty to parse when trying to divine the Fed's next move on interest rates.
"For people in financial markets, this will be a treasure trove of new information. But I don't think the average person will take the time to pore through the information," Tannenbaum said.
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers welcomed Bernanke's effort to demystify the Fed.
"At a time when the domestic and world economies are changing rapidly, more information can only benefit American families, policymakers and businesses," said Sen. Chuck Schumer.
Improving the public's understanding of the Fed's objectives and strategies reduces uncertainty, allowing businesses and people to make more informed financial decisions, Bernanke explained. If investors have a better understanding of how Fed policy is likely to respond to incoming information, stock prices and bond yields will tend to respond to economic data in ways that further the central bank's objectives, he added.
"The changes will provide a more timely insight into the (Fed's) outlook, will help households and businesses better understand and anticipate how our policy decisions respond to incoming information and will enhance our accountability for the decisions we make," the Fed chief said in a speech to a conference on monetary policy held at the Cato Institute.
Fielding questions after his speech, Bernanke stressed that he is especially interested in getting feedback from investors, companies and members of the public on the Fed's communications changes. "We'll consider all suggestions as we go forward," he said.
In 2008, the expanded projections will be published in the minutes released after the Fed's meeting on interest rates. The forecasts will be included in the minutes of the Fed meetings scheduled for January, April, June and October, Bernanke said. The projections will continue to be described in the Fed's twice a year economic report to Congress, he said.
In his speech and in brief remarks afterward, Bernanke did not discuss the future course of interest rates. The Fed in late October sliced a key interest rate to 4.50 percent. It marked the second cut in six weeks to help the economy survive the strains of a severe housing slump and a credit crunch. At that meeting, Bernanke and his colleagues hinted that those two rates cut may be all that is needed to keep the economic expansion intact, although some investors and economists are still looking for another rate cut at the next meeting, on Dec. 11.
At the time of Bernanke's speech, a separate statement outlining the changes was released by the Federal Open Market Committee, the Fed's chief policymaking group.
As part of the Fed's effort to provide more economic information, policymakers will make forecasts of both overall inflation — which affects and is closely watched by consumers — as well as "core" inflation, which excludes food and energy prices, Bernanke said. Adding a projection on overall inflation, which covers a wide variety of goods and services, is especially important to consumers as they make financial decisions, prepare household budgets and plan for the future.
"Ultimately, households and businesses care about the overall, or headline, rate of inflation," Bernanke said.
Greater insights into Fed policymakers' thinking also will be revealed with the expanded projections, Bernanke said.
"Accompanying the numerical projections will be a discussion — a projections narrative if you will — that summarizes participants' views of the major forces shaping the outlook, discusses the sources of risk to that outlook and describes the dispersion of views among policymakers," he said.