The public face of American monetary policy is a bearded, soft-spoken, baseball-loving academic who was given his job by a Republican president and reappointed by a Democrat.
As chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke takes questions from Congress and at press conferences; markets move on his words. Increasingly, he's also the target of public anger, whether for meddling too much in the economy or for not doing enough.
The Fed chairman does not, however, act alone.
The system he oversees (essentially, the bank for banks) sets policy with the votes of seven presidentially appointed governors, the head of the New York Fed, and a rotating group of four chiefs of the other regional Fed banks.
At a time when the Fed has trekked far past its traditional frontiers -- holding short-term rates near zero, buying up trillions of dollars in financial assets, and, in December, declaring it would keep all this up until unemployment comes down -- market watchers are also paying close attention to those other voices.
And some of those voices disagree. A lot.
On one side are the so-called hawks, who worry that more easing won't work, or that it could set up a risk of higher inflation in the long run.
On the other are the doves, who have backed Bernanke and sometimes cajoled him toward more aggressive efforts.
The stakes of this insiders' debate are huge. What the Fed does next, and whether it's right, will dictate the security of your retirement, the performance of your investments, and the stability of the economy all around you.
THE FED'S GREAT EXPERIMENT: Uncle Sam wants you... to spend
"These are scary times if you are an investor," says Janet Yellen, the vice chair of the Fed's board of governors. "We've been through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression."
Yellen, 66, is frequently spoken of as a candidate to succeed Bernanke in the top job when his term expires in 2014 and is seen by Fed watchers as a leading dove -- a label she rejects, pointing out that she thinks the Fed must fight inflation too. The problem, from her vantage point, is that the past five years have been so wildly unusual that it has taken an equally unusual response for the Fed to have any hope of bringing things back to normal.
To understand the Fed's current high-wire act, start with what it does in normal times.
Congress has handed the Fed the twin responsibilities of keeping prices stable and holding down unemployment. The Fed's most visible tool for doing that is to adjust the short-term Fed funds rate, the interest banks charge one another for loans.
By making money easier to get, low rates can spur growth but pose an inflation risk if workers come to think they can bid up wages faster and businesses believe they can jack up prices. Higher rates can slow inflation, but they also stymie growth and employment. That much is business as usual.
When the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy in 2008, the Fed quickly cut rates down to near zero. Not business as usual. Also not enough. Unemployment touched 10% at its worst and remains frustratingly high. So the Fed has been experimenting. One name for its experiments is "quantitative easing," which has now been rolled out multiple times since the crash.
QE is partly an extension of a routine practice -- to adjust rates, the Fed normally buys and sells very short-term bonds. But with QE, it has also bought a massive pile of longer-term Treasuries and bonds backed by home mortgages.
Because this is the Federal Reserve, it buys using money created by a keystroke that adds dollars to the reserve accounts of the banks it trades with. The effect is to reshape the market for basically all financial assets.
Buying up bonds pushes down longer-term interest rates, which ought to make it easier for businesses and homebuyers to get loans. It also makes low-risk assets like Treasuries less attractive to hold on to, hopefully getting money off the sidelines so companies invest and hire, home values rise, and consumers feel wealthier and spend. Bernanke has said that a rising stock market is an indicator that QE is working -- that investors are embracing risk. Since 2009, the S&P 500 has more than doubled.
The Fed, says Yellen, is trying "to make the environment more predictable, more favorable, and less scary." The weird irony is that to push toward this safer-seeming world, the Fed has had to make things harder on people who want to park their money someplace safe. These days a five-year CD earns less than 1%.
Untested as they are, the policies may well be propping up the U.S. economy at a time when Europe is floundering, Chinese growth is slowing, and American fiscal policy is tangled in partisan fights over budgets, taxes, and debt. The added drama here is that no one knows exactly what will happen when the Fed tries to return to normal.
Sometime in the next few years the bank will need to stop stimulating growth and start selling the assets it has accumulated along the way. No central bank has ever before unwound such a massive amount of stimulus.
The Fed "is making up a lot of this as we go along," says Tim Duy, a University of Oregon economist who writes a blog called Fed Watch that is popular among monetary-policy junkies. "We're not entirely flying blind from a historical perspective, but we're certainly close to that."
WHAT THE HAWKS FEAR: Does this thing go in reverse?
The most recent round of QE had just one dissenting vote, Richmond Federal Reserve president Jeffrey Lacker. This near unanimity doesn't reflect how hot the political passions around monetary policy are or how careful Bernanke and the doves have had to be in selling their policies.
The Fed's monetary committee isn't like the Supreme Court; it rarely issues sharply split decisions. Instead, Bernanke quietly builds support for new policy moves before announcing them. "In the Bernanke Fed, the most important thing is the process -- everyone gets to talk," says Michael S. Hanson, an economist and Fed watcher at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research.
Outside the Fed, Bernanke has to consider increasingly hostile Republicans in Congress; their party's 2012 platform called for a commission to study a (seriously unlikely) return to the gold standard, taking much of the monetary power out of the Fed's hands.
Within the Fed itself, the critics include high-profile presidents of regional Fed banks. Although two of the most outspoken hawks, Charles Plosser of the Philadelphia Fed and Richard Fisher of Dallas, aren't on the monetary policy voting rotation this year, their opinions make headlines.
Like Bernanke, Plosser, 64, is an academic economist. He sees little evidence that the Fed's moves boost growth.
Declining home values, he notes, have wiped out a huge amount of household wealth. Americans are trying to rebuild that wealth. So the Fed's efforts to spark more consumption, he says, are just cutting against consumers' natural inclinations -- and may be hampering their efforts: "They don't want to spend," Plosser says. "They want to save."
Plosser also argues that there are risks to what the Fed has been doing. In buying all those long-term assets, the Fed has poured huge amounts of money into banks' reserves. Right now a lot of that money is just sitting there. Plosser's worry is that the money could eventually pour too fast into the real economy, fueling inflation if the Fed doesn't act.
In theory, the Fed merely has to reverse the QE process, selling assets to suck up all those dollars. Easier said than done, says Plosser. "If we are too late or must react aggressively, the consequences could get more ugly, more risky than in normal times," he says.
Fisher, 63, is a former investment banker with a Stanford MBA, and he doesn't talk much like a Fed technocrat. In a recent speech he called members of Congress "parasitic wastrels" and quoted the country singer George Strait to extol the benefits of Texas's low-tax, low-regulation business climate. He's careful to say he doesn't see inflation right around the corner, but echoes Plosser's concern that the Fed can't create more growth from here.
"My view is we've done enough," says Fisher. "The gas tank is overflowing."
His criticism also has a moralist's edge: The Federal Reserve, he says, has "penalized those who played by the rules, saved money, and particularly those who are aging -- people like me, who are baby boomers, early baby boomers. Their returns have been driven down to nil." Fisher calls the recent stimulus efforts "monetary Ritalin."
WHY THE DOVES DON'T QUIT: If only inflation were the problem
Fisher's Ritalin remark might say more than he means. Many parents would point out that sometimes a struggling student needs exactly that sort of help to get through some tough years and go on to be productive. And is anyone going to argue that the U.S. isn't still wobbly? Fewer than half of the jobs lost since the recession have come back.
Chicago Fed president Charles Evans has long thought the Fed should be making it clear that unemployment should be lower. "I've been outspoken in saying that we should keep the federal funds rate at zero until we see an improvement in the unemployment rate, at least until we reach about 6.5%," he told Money in November. In mid-December, Bernanke announced that Fed policy would do just that.
Talking about 6.5% unemployment may not be as colorful as "parasitic wastrels," but in the world of Fed wonks, it's the kind of thing that makes people sit up and listen.
The Fed adopted Evans's ideas "lock, stock and barrel," says Princeton's Alan Blinder, a former Fed vice chairman. "Plainly, we're not at the limit of quantitative easing. There is no limit."
That's bold stuff because, as James Bullard of the St. Louis Fed noted in a recent speech, the central bank does not have a great history with targeting job growth; the belief that policymakers could engineer very low unemployment helped set the stage for the great 1970s inflation.
The Fed's current unemployment threshold is comparatively modest and is paired with what Evans, 54, calls a "safeguard" inflation threshold of 2.5%, but it's a loud signal that the Fed wants to keep a heavy foot on the gas until jobs come back.
The doves acknowledge that low rates are making life hard today on retirees who depend on the income from their savings. Evans insists that trying to raise the Fed funds rate today wouldn't help anyone. What will help is a roaring economy, which lower rates should stoke. There's no point trying to push rates up now to have them drop again if unemployment spikes.
As Evans puts it, "The longer we spend fortifying our policies to make sure we get the most vibrant, robust demand possible to generate growth, the sooner we'll get higher rates."
So what about inflation risk? Hawks, it should be noted, have been worrying over inflation for years now, with little of it materializing, except for some temporary surges in energy and food prices. Because incomes show little sign of rising broadly across the economy anytime soon, the Fed sees little risk of consumer prices taking off.
"There just isn't inflationary pressure in the economy right now," Yellen says. "We don't have enough spending. The economy is weak." Indeed, some market measures, including the amount of yield buyers are willing to forgo to grab the inflation-protected version of Treasuries, called TIPS, still showed expected inflation at 2.5% a year or lower for the next decade.
When the Fed needs to unwind what it's done, Yellen says, the tools exist to keep the process orderly.
In addition to selling back the securities on its balance sheet, it can reduce the amount of dollars sloshing around in the economy by paying banks higher rates on the money they hold in reserve.
Despite the wide gap between the two sides, some doves and hawks agree on this: Congress has some work to do.
Fisher's ire is focused on lawmakers' inability to set predictable policy on taxes, spending, and regulation and to chart a course toward a balanced budget. Evans -- and quite loudly Bernanke himself -- have pushed for accommodative fiscal policy to assist their monetary efforts.
As shown by the bickering over what to do about the "fiscal cliff," the powerful anti-stimulus of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts nobody claimed to want, quick action isn't something the political system seems able to deliver any longer. For better or for worse, the Federal Reserve is now the most powerful economic policymaker on the field.
WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU: Betting on a sure thing -- until it isn't
Wary of how confusing these debates can be to investors -- Who's really winning? What's happening next? -- Bernanke has consistently pushed the Fed to do a much better job of beaming information about its policy path to the general public. None of that cryptic maestro act that America got from Alan Greenspan.
This isn't some reform-minded sunlight-in-government effort, however. "Communication is a policy tool in and of itself," says Yellen. "It's not only current purchases of assets or the current level of the Fed funds rate that matter, but also market expectations of the paths of those things over time."
Translation: By telling the world that it's set on 6.5% unemployment and that it will tolerate inflation of 2.5%, the Fed is all but screaming at the market that it won't pull the rug up -- all to coax investors, lenders, and businesses back into confidence.
The Fed is also saying that safety will continue to cost. Today's yield on a 10-year Treasury bond is just 1.79%, which means in real terms that you are losing money holding on to it even if inflation is a bit less than 2.5%. Steeper rises would be even more painful.
For you, the Fed's stance has a few logical implications:
Don't run from stocks -- but don't try to chase a rally either. The adage on Wall Street is "Don't fight the Fed." So far, the bank's commitment to monetary stimulus has buoyed equities, which suggests, barring even uglier economic surprises, a relatively bullish outlook.
The wrinkle here is that the Fed is just one partner in the market-expectations tango. On the other side, investors have now had time to digest the idea that Bernanke and company are determined to keep policy accommodating and to account for that in prices. It could be that many of the gains the Fed could conjure have already happened.
Don't stretch for big bond yields or returns. Given the lousy rates on safe funds, the yields on bonds and bond funds with a longer maturity or more credit risk can look appealing. They've also had unusually high recent returns, thanks to the historic rate drop. (Bonds' prices rise as rates fall.)
Rates are likely to stay low for some time, but when they do rise, aggressive bond investors could be in for a nasty surprise.
Spread out your risk: Hold longer-term bonds that will do well if the Fed holds the line, but also stash assets in short-term instruments. (CDs can earn more than short Treasuries.) Should rates spike, you'll take advantage when the short-term investments mature.
And don't go overboard on high-yield or more exotic kinds of debt. "There's so much pressure on people to add income at these low-yield levels," says Michael Cloherty, head of U.S. rates strategy for RBC Capital Markets. "The concern is that people stop hedging some of these risks, and then you get everybody scrambling for the door simultaneously."
Do be a long-term fixed-rate borrower. What's bad for bondholders is good for anyone who can handle some debt. Don't be in a hurry to pay off your mortgage.
Do have an inflation hedge. Although fast-rising prices do not look likely in the near future, moving some of your bond portfolio into inflation-protected TIPS will give you a buffer if a shock does come.
Is there a lot of uncertainty here? You bet. Even savvy investors struggle to predict when the Fed will act or what its effects will be. Four-plus years after the crisis, investors and savers remain in a tight spot. There's only so much even the Fed can fix.