New U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell made his debut this week – not just to U.S. markets but to the world – when he spoke to the House Financial Services Committee about monetary policy. The market reacted with both relief and worry, as is to be expected from an entity that is often described as bipolar.
Powell got high marks for his confidence, particularly in his assessment of the prospects for the U.S. economy. To some observers, however, his confidence was judged to be cocky. The equity markets took his comments as a signal that an additional interest rate hike is likely this year and stocks moved lower as a result.
The Fed is often portrayed as taking away the punch bowl just when the party gets going. Equity markets this week reacted as if Powell snatched the cups out of their hands as well.
It bears noting that rookie missteps are not uncommon among central bankers.
Mark Carney, the Bank of England's governor since 2013, strongly hinted at rate hikes early on but had to back off as Brexit approached. He then found himself helping to calm nerves after Brexit passed.
Mario Draghi – European Central Bank president since 2011 – was initially considered insecure when it came to aggressive monetary policy - and this was just as the eurozone was close to falling apart. He later redeemed himself with a remark that has become legendary, “We will do whatever it takes." That comment is often credited as one of the reasons the common currency in Europe stayed alive.
Not every false start is redeemed, however. Bank of Japan Governor Haruhika Kuroda – who took office in 2013 - remains sidelined as all his efforts to revive inflation in Japan remain ineffective.
One thing that can be said for Powell: Currently, he is the only head of a central bank who recently hails from business rather than from academia. Although he has been on the Fed's Board of Governors since mid-2012, he had a long career as a lawyer and investment banker. While other major central bankers have followed similar career paths – Kuroda is a lawyer and Carney used to be an investment banker – they can be described as far removed from those days.
My View: My first impression of Powell has been positive. It's also interesting to note that he is the first of his breed to enter office in recent years without the cloud of the global recession still hanging over the economy. While that is a cause for some celebration, it also increases the likelihood that his policy decisions will be more difficult and nuanced. I am glad that Fed Chair Powell has confidence: He is going to need it.
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