Bernanke to Miss Jackson Hole Symposium on Schedule Conflict

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke will not attend the central bank’s marquee conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, this year because of a personal scheduling conflict, a Fed spokeswoman said.

The 59-year-old Bernanke, whose term as head of the central bank expires in January, has been the keynote speaker every year since becoming chairman in 2006. The spokeswoman, who asked not to be identified by name, declined to say whether Bernanke would address the conference by video or whether Vice Chairman Janet Yellen would speak.

The last three years, Bernanke’s speeches at Jackson Hole have been closely watched by investors for signs of changes in policy. This year’s conference has been tentatively set for the second half of August.

“Many a policy shift has been signaled by the Chairman’s speech at Jackson Hole, dating back to the Greenspan era,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist for Mesirow Financial Inc. who has attended conferences featuring both Bernanke and his predecessor, Alan Greenspan. “This has made the conference the media and market mover it has become.”

Signal Seen

In 2010, Bernanke’s remarks were seen as a signal that the central bank would start a second round of large-scale asset purchases, or quantitative easing. The purchases began in November of that year.

In 2011 the central bank embarked on a program to extend the maturities of assets on its balance sheet, known as Operation Twist, a month after Jackson Hole. Last year, Bernanke told the conference that “the costs of nontraditional policies, when considered carefully, appear manageable, implying that we should not rule out the further use of such policies if economic conditions warrant.”

The Fed began QE3, consisting of $40 billion in monthly mortgage bond purchases, the month after Bernanke spoke. In December, the Fed added $45 billion a month of Treasuries, bringing the total size of the program to $85 billion a month.

His absence this year was first reported by Reuters.

Even without Bernanke, “the content of the conference is always critical given the mix of attendees and speakers, especially internationally,” Swonk said.

Regional Presidents

Last year’s event attracted 10 of the 12 regional Federal Reserve Bank Presidents and Yellen. A paper by Columbia University’s Michael Woodford foreshadowed the Fed’s decision to make its interest-rate policy contingent on economic conditions.

At the time, the Fed pledged to keep its main interest rate near zero until a certain date. Woodford said that approach could inadvertently “reflect pessimism about the speed of the economy’s recovery.”

“A more useful form of forward guidance, I believe, would be one that emphasizes the target criterion that will be used to determine when it is appropriate to raise the federal funds rate target above its current level, rather than estimates of the ‘lift-off’ date.”

In December, the Fed followed Woodford’s advice, and announced it would hold the rate near zero until unemployment fell to 6.5 percent so long as the outlook for inflation did not climb above 2.5 percent.

The Kansas City Fed’s annual economics symposium was first moved to Wyoming in 1982 to lure then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, an avid fly fisherman, according to “In Late August,” a history of the event published by the Kansas City Fed.

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