Confident and clear, Yellen says rate path will be well signaled

Thu Dec 17, 2015 8:53am EST
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By Ann Saphir

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The unanimous backing Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen got for the Fed's first rate hike since the financial crisis let her deliver a clear message: Don't expect further rate hikes for a while, and when we are ready, we'll tell you.

Yellen's confident and measured performance - she even managed a joke about the Fed's forecasting record - came as she ended the "extraordinary" measures that revived the U.S. economy from the worst recession since the 1930s.

Clear communication has not been a strong suit at the U.S. central bank in recent months, with top Fed officials talking at cross purposes and sending mixed signals about when the benchmark interest rate should rise. But when it mattered the 69-year old economist guided markets to a soft landing and convinced skeptical rate setters to back the consensus.

Indeed, before the Fed's last meeting, an overwhelming majority of Wall Street firms told the Fed that its communications were ineffective or nearly so, according to the New York Fed's most recent survey.

Stocks even managed a rally on the Fed decision as Yellen corralled doubters like Fed governors Lael Brainard and Daniel Tarullo, as well as the dovish chief of the Chicago Fed, Charles Evans, to sign on to the decision to raise short-term interest rates.

Even projections for future rate hikes have coalesced, with nearly all Fed officials agreeing within a quarter of a percentage point on where the benchmark rate should be by the end of next year. In September views were much more widely dispersed.

"Definitely a communications coup," said Scott Anderson, chief economist for Bank of the West in San Francisco.

Market responses were relatively muted, with futures on short-term interest rates dropping just enough to suggest traders now believe the next rate hike will occur in April, rather than in June as had been expected.   Continued...

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen listens to a reporter's question during a news conference in Washington December 16, 2015.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst