Janet Yellen wants to be less predictable, if only a little.
Should the Federal Reserve this week jettison a promise to remain “patient” about raising interest rates, as anticipated by economists, the omission will mark the end of an era in Fed communications policy and could usher in a period of greater market volatility.
Beginning in June, and for the first time since 2008, officials would be making rate decisions meeting-by-meeting, based purely on the data in front of them, rather than committing themselves to keeping borrowing costs low.
While Fed Chair Yellen wants to wean investors from relying on central bank guidance on the future path of policy, she wants to avoid an excessive rise in bond yields that could sap growth.
“They want to normalize policy, and one part of normalizing is to inject some uncertainty over what the central bank will do,” said Roberto Perli, a former Fed official who is now a partner in Washington for Cornerstone Macro LLC. “Still, they don’t want the markets to go haywire.”
Almost 90 percent of economists surveyed by Bloomberg predict officials will drop the “patient” pledge from their statement released after a two-day Federal Open Market Committee meeting ends on Wednesday.
Some 45 percent saw this as a step toward a June increase in rates, which have been held near zero since December 2008, according to the poll of 49 respondents conducted March 12 and 13. Thirty-seven percent saw rate liftoff in September.
The FOMC in December dropped a long-standing pledge to keep rates near zero for a “considerable time,” saying instead that policy makers “could be patient” in deciding when to tighten.
At the press conference that followed, Yellen said the phrase meant the committee was unlikely to move rates in its next two sessions. The FOMC repeated the language in January, effectively ruling out an increase in March and April.
Removing “patient” this month will bring June into play. Yellen’s semi-annual testimony before Congress on Feb. 24-25 signaled the Fed was getting ready to drop the phrase.
Her test, when she speaks at a press conference after this week’s meeting, will be finding the middle ground between limiting the Fed’s options and becoming entirely unpredictable.
“Yellen will emphasize until she is blue in the face she does not have to raise rates in June,” said Eric Green, head of U.S. economic research at TD Securities USA LLC in New York, who formerly worked at the New York Fed.
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