Silly Yellen Bashing at the WaPo

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Friday, 21 March 2014 00:20

The campaign to install Larry Summers instead of Janet Yellen as Fed chair was chock full of sexist innuendo as pundits speculated as to whether Yellen had the gravitas to hold down the job. The Washington Post's editorial on Yellen's first press conference showed that such attitudes continue in elite Washington circles.

The headline complained:

"In Fed media event, Yellen isn't able to control the message."

The piece itself told readers:

"Mr. Bernanke’s successor, Janet Yellen, met with reporters Wednesday and, bluntly, it didn’t go all that smoothly. Responding to a question, Ms. Yellen hinted that the Fed might start raising interest rates above zero “around six months” after phasing out the current bond-buying stimulus program; bond markets quickly sold off, which was almost certainly not what Ms. Yellen intended. Ms. Yellen also assured investors that there was no great significance to the Fed’s decision, announced Wednesday, to back off its previous plan to raise rates after unemployment hit 6.5 percent. But markets looked past her words to other Fed officials’ own interest-rate forecasts and drew contrary conclusions."

If you missed the earthquake in bond markets that was the basis for the Post's editorial you can be forgiven. The economy will probably miss it too. The linked article reports that yield on two-year Treasury notes climbed 7 basis points to 0.42 percent. This is a lot in percentage terms, but its economic impact is close to zero. The yield on ten-year Treasury bonds, which has far more impact on the economy, was little changed. It is still under 2.8 percent and has remained in pretty much the same range for the last month and a half, down from just over 3.0 percent in December.

In other words, if Yellen misspoke there was little obvious consequence. By contrast, her predecessor Ben Bernanke did spark a sharp rise in long-term interest rates with his famous taper talk last June. Partly as a result of this talk, the yield on ten-year bonds rose by more than one percentage point over a two-month period. While this rise in long-term rates did not appear to be his intention, it appears to have taken the air out of an incipient bubble in the housing market. In that sense, it may have been a remarkably good move, even if it was an unintended outcome.

Anyhow, it is striking that the WaPo didn't see the need to rebuke Bernanke for what appeared to major unintended consequences from a press conference, while Yellen does draw its wrath for a possibly mistake that will have virtually no economic impact.