Looking Back for Forward Guidance

Investors and some central bankers believe in forward guidance – that announcing what the bank will do well before it does anything can control the economy.  One proponent is Mark Carney the governor of the Bank of England (BOE) and previously head of the Bank of Canada. In a speech earlier today at Davos he told people to ignore statements made last summer about how the BOE would respond to a falling unemployment rate and offered a new twist to forward guidance: the BOE’s Monetary Policy Committee would re-think how to do forward guidance if they needed to change their mind.

Forward guidance, the idea that central banks can use announcements of future policy moves as a way to affect the economy gained popularity in recent years. In simple terms, if the Fed, or the Bank of England, says it won’t raise interest rates until unemployment drops, people respond by confidently borrowing and spending.  Central bankers were once tight lipped fearing that any comment might spook bond traders and damage the economy. After the financial crisis with interest rates pegged at their zero lower bound, a new tool for economic management was needed.  The answer was to tell the markets what the bank would do and then watch the economy follow instructions.

Forward guidance apparently works – markets and investors take note and respond as desired.  Central bankers can move the economy in the direction they want just by issuing official statements. But it only works as long as people believe what they hear. This is issue before Mark Carney and the Bank of England – and the issue about to confront the Fed and its soon-to-be chairperson Janet Yellin.  Unemployment rates in both the US and the UK dropped more than expected in recent months. Both banks’ forward guidance is on the record with unemployment targets for when interest rates might increase.  The Bank of England is sufficiently close to their target that they hint they may change their mind. We will need to read their upcoming February Inflation Report in hope of finding forward guidance 2.0.

Over at the Fed the details differ. The last employment report was unexpectedly weak so now everyone is wondering if another weak report will change their plans for tapering QE, their last public statements indicated.  A few days ago a page one article appeared in the upper right hand corner of the Wall Street Journal quoting two of the regional Federal Reserve bank presidents commenting that the Fed would continue to taper QE regardless on the employment report due on February 7th.   While this isn’t official forward guidance from the Fed, it is journalism – and some parts old time jaw boning, whispering and hinting.

A decade or two ago, before Central Bankers believed in maximum transparency, when the Wall Street Journal was a monotone grey paper only read within a few blocks of its namesake location, the way the Fed communicated with the markets was an occasional story in the upper right hand corner of page one quoting an unnamed senior Fed official. Unstated was the belief that the senior Fed official might be the chairman himself.  What was said sounded a bit vague and much less definite than today’s official statements. The element of uncertainty in the article forced investors to think through their own market forecasts and strategies knowing that the Fed might change its plan when the data changed.

Maybe some other senior officials at the Fed or the Bank of England today might prefer the old fashioned kind of forward guidance.

The posts on this blog are opinions, not advice. Please read our disclaimers.

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