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Fed's No. 2 official may shed light on interest rate hike at symposium

Fed's No. 2 official may shed light on interest rate hike at symposium
Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer, speaks during a Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System meeting in Washington.The vice chairman is thought to be more inclined than Yellen to raise rates sooner than later. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

The Federal Reserve's summer symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyo., often has provided a stage for central bank officials to signal an imminent policy change.

In August 2007, as strains in the housing market grew, then-Chairman Ben S. Bernanke gave a heads-up on what would be a 0.5-percentage-point cut in its benchmark interest rate the following month. At the 2011 meeting, Bernanke laid the groundwork for a new round of bond purchases to stimulate a slowing recovery.

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Thanks to the recent turmoil in global markets, the eyes and ears of the financial world will be focused once again on the annual conference, which is hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

The Fed's No. 2 official, Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer, is scheduled to speak Saturday in place of Fed Chairwoman Janet L. Yellen. She had previously made plans to skip the event to spend time with family and friends, a Fed spokesperson said.

Until recently, Fed watchers weren't deeply focused on the meeting because the central bank already had made clear that it probably would raise interest rates as early as next month.

But now investors will be looking to Jackson Hole to see whether Fed officials signal a delay in those plans, as many are expecting.

Without Yellen in attendance, however, it may be more difficult than usual to get a clear idea of the Fed's plans.

"I'm not sure we're going to be getting the same level of guidance," said Carl Tannenbaum, senior vice president at Northern Trust Co. in Chicago. Fischer, considered the most internationalist Fed member, can't speak for the entire Fed or its policymaking committee, he said.

But Fischer certainly could telegraph his personal views on the long-anticipated rate hike.

The vice chairman is thought to be more inclined than Yellen to raise rates sooner than later, so his statements could shed light on how the debate inside the central bank may transpire when officials meet Sept. 16 and 17. An account of the Fed's last meeting in late July suggests that the divide among policymakers is widening.

"He's not quite as dovish as Yellen," said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, using a term that refers to someone who is less aggressive in combating inflation.

"At the Bank of Israel" — where Fischer was governor before joining the Fed last year — "he made some radical moves on interest rates. He kind of likes to shake it up a little," Rupkey said. "We could get some important news."

Economists haven't completely ruled out a rate increase next month, though with each passing day of stock losses, chances diminish for a move next month or even this year. Though risks to the U.S. economy have grown with the stock market plunge, that hasn't affected the economy's fundamentals — which is what Fed officials will be focusing on.

On Tuesday, as the broad Standard & Poor's 500 index finished lower for a sixth session, there were positive reports on U.S. consumer confidence and the housing market.

The Fed's main mandate is to maximize U.S. employment and control inflation. The labor market has shown solid gains, though most officials think there's room for improvement. And inflation has been unusually low, though policymakers generally see that moving up to the Fed's 2% target in the not-too-distant future.

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But financial stability also matters, and that's where the global turbulence comes in.

With world economies and financial markets more intertwined than ever, problems in other major economies reverberate in the U.S. and vice versa.

At the Jackson Hole symposium, Fischer and other Fed officials may be hearing calls from central bankers in emerging economies to hold off raising rates because of fears that U.S. action could add to the pressures facing developing economies, already hurt by China's slowdown and shrinking demand for commodities.

The Fed's benchmark interest rate has been held near zero since December 2008, and global expectations of an imminent end to that policy have for months pinched emerging economies as investors have moved funds to the U.S. in anticipation of higher returns.

For this and other reasons, the International Monetary Fund and some other groups have urged the Fed to hold off until next year.

Analysts said a removal of uncertainty could give investors a psychological boost, which could help calm markets. But the effect on the real economy isn't likely to be big, particularly for ordinary American consumers.

A small bump up in the Fed's benchmark rate, whether in September or December, isn't going to make much difference to mortgage rates, which are tied more to long-term bond yields. Nor will it mean much for rates on credit cards, auto loans and other consumer loans.

What matters more for consumers and the economy is how quickly the Fed will keep raising rates once it makes the initial move — and Yellen and other policymakers have repeatedly indicated that further increases were expected to be very gradual, with rates probably ending up lower than historical levels.

"It's not the date of liftoff but the trajectory of the flight that's more important for the economy and the markets," said Tannenbaum of Northern Trust. "Communication around that will reassure markets that this is not the first of rapid increases to come."

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