Markets always a captive audience for Federal Reserve chairman

View from Here A change of direction will create a huge surge of money, trillions of dollars, repositioning itself to adapt to the new scenario.

A central banker's speech is usually as stimulating as a bus timetable. But few people have as much impact on the value of your dirhams than Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve. You just have to figure out what he is saying.

Why should you care? Unfortunately, boring and unimportant are not always the same thing. What the Fed says, or does, plays out directly in the dollar-pegged UAE. It also impacts the world economy, on the principle that a sniffle on Wall Street also has the rest of us reaching for the Kleenex.

The Fed's importance comes down to this. Investors, big or small, are at the mercy of the world economy. Diversify your portfolio all you want; salt away cash under your mattress. But your wealth, like a boat on the water, rises and falls with the economic tide. It's just a matter of degrees.

And the one man who can influence the world economy, from London to Jakarta, Wall Street to Abu Dhabi, is Mr Bernanke.

Markets barely get out of bed when a congressman, or whoever happens to be in the Oval Office, speaks. But entire forests are sacrificed each time Mr Bernanke opens his mouth, as analysts try to explain what he means. The surprising thing is that he only really has one of two things to say: interest rates are going up, or they are going down.

Lower interest rates mean cheaper money and easier loans. They also mean the Fed thinks the economy is in trouble. Higher interest rates indicate the Fed thinks the economy is growing too fast and needs to be cooled, and money needs to be made more expensive.

Either way, a change of direction will create a huge surge of money, trillions of dollars, repositioning itself to adapt to the new scenario.

And this is exactly what the Fed does not want to happen. Because rule 101 for central bankers is: cause no chaos. And because the aim is to not shock the market, even as policy changes, they resort to their own language, known as Fedspeak. This is plain English, which is English that is anything but plain.

In 1996, Mr Bernanke's predecessor, Alan Greenspan, gave an after-dinner speech in which he mused over whether markets were showing "irrational exuberance". Most guests would have been picking over their dinner mints, paying minimal attention. But the army of Fed analysts - the fan boys of the economics world - were listening in and took his post-postprandial talk to mean a crash was imminent.

Immediately, stock markets around the world went nuts. Tokyo, which was open as he gave his speech, fell 3 per cent. Hong Kong soon followed. Frankfurt and London tanked 4 per cent and the US stock market fell 2 per cent at the open of trade.

A day later, a lot of sheepish number-crunchers realised they had overreacted and markets recovered. The event made the term "irrational exuberance" famous. It also taught Mr Greenspan to couch his words. Eventually, he became the samurai master of Fedspeak, giving long speeches that left audiences baffled, if they managed to stay awake.

Mr Bernanke, it must be said, is cut from a different cloth. He has tried to be less obscure, but is no less cautious. He gives press conferences - a first for the usually reticent Fed. A couple of weeks ago, he said interest rates would stay on hold until 2013 to help an ailing US economy. No previous Fed governor has ever showed his hand so far into the future.

This weekend past, economists waited anxiously for his annual Jackson Hole, Wyoming, address. The financial media has been stalking the event for weeks, wondering if he would signal a new round of debt buying to prop up the US economy.

Instead, he chided the politicians for being politicians. But not a whole lot else. If anything, it's what he didn't say that sparked the most interest. He made no mention of the sliding dollar and the thundering stampede of American money to safe havens, such as gold or the yuan.

This implies the Fed will do nothing to defend the dollar - and allow it to weaken for the foreseeable future. For those of us earning dirhams, this is not great news. It means earning less for the same amount of work.

Costs, meanwhile, will continue to increase and our lifestyles will be crimped. Products made in China that we love so much will become ever so much more expensive. It will be three badly sewn Gap sweaters this winter, instead of four. Or maybe I will just have to make do with those bought at last year's sales.

After all, Mr Bernanke has spoken.

Gavin du Venage is a business writer and entrepreneur based in South Africa.

Published: September 3, 2011 04:00 AM


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