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Fixed-Income Insights

Upcoming changes in the membership of the Federal Open Market Committee could have significant implications for monetary policy.

The October 30 communiqué from the Federal Reserve's policy-setting arm, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), included some surprising optimism regarding the strength of the U.S. economy. Specifically, the statement omitted the mention of "tighter financial conditions" made following the FOMC's meeting on September 18,1 and reframed recent weakness in housing, retail sales, and jobs growth, stating that "...the downside risks to the outlook for the economy and the labor market...[have] diminished, on net, since last fall."2

Such optimism was interpreted by some investors as leaving open the possibility that the Fed, even with recent data reports that were softer than generally forecast, might justify tapering its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases before March 2014, a more hawkish stance than was expected. ("Hawks" refer to Fed officials whose policy priorities lie in keeping inflation in check over boosting economic growth, while "doves" prioritize growth over inflation.)

If recent indications of economic weakness and poor job growth can be regarded so benignly by the current FOMC roster, the presence of more committee members with an inflation-fighting bent in 2014 could have an important influence on policy and investments.

Taper Timing
The widely anticipated Senate confirmation of current vice chairwoman Janet Yellen as Ben Bernanke's replacement as chairman of the Fed has been accompanied by expectations of continued accommodative policy. If anything, a Yellen-led Fed is expected to be more dovish than under Bernanke's leadership. This, combined with recent economic weakness, has caused investors to expect the start of tapering to be delayed and the process to unfold more slowly than previously thought.

However, the composition of the FOMC membership Yellen is expected to lead could be decidedly more hawkish than today. The tapering process and subsequent policy could be altered as a result.

In addition, increased transparency at the central bank (an effort spearheaded by none other than Yellen) empowers all views on the committee, even those in opposition to the Fed chair. This could lead to increased investor uncertainty if rising hawkish sentiment among FOMC members makes the Fed’s approach to future policy appear less cohesive.

FOMC Overhaul
This is especially important for investors to consider as most of the voting members of the FOMC will change by early 2014. The 12-member committee is comprised of seven governors appointed by the president of the United States; the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; and four of the other 11 regional Fed presidents, who serve one-year rotating terms. Assuming Yellen is confirmed, only William Dudley, New York Fed president, and Fed governor Daniel Tarullo are certain to be voting members of the FOMC with her throughout 2014. All of the other positions could potentially be filled by new members. That is a lot of change—and potentially lost experience—for one of the most influential policymaking groups in the world.

For instance, the Federal Reserve Bank presidents currently on the committee—James Bullard (St. Louis), Eric Rosengren (Boston), Charles Evans (Chicago), and Esther George (Kansas City)—will be replaced with fellow regional chiefs Richard Fisher (Dallas), Charles Plosser (Philadelphia), Narayana Kocherlakota (Minneapolis), and Sandra Pianalto (Cleveland). The new composition of the Fed's bank presidents is more hawkish than the 2013 contingent, with Fisher and Plosser among the most inflation-wary voices within the central bank. Adding to the uncertainty is Pianalto, who will retire in early 2014. Pianalto's successor will retain the Cleveland Fed's voting membership.

In terms of the Fed governors, Elizabeth Duke and Sarah Raskin have resigned, Jerome Powell's term will expire along with Bernanke's in January, and Jeremy Stein will leave by the end of May. Even if Powell is re-nominated by the White House, the uncertainty surrounding other appointments cannot be reassuring to Yellen, especially since President Barack Obama seemed ready to nominate Lawrence Summers, a critic of quantitative easing, for Fed chair, before realizing that congressional support wasn’t there for Summers, so instead selected Yellen.

Different Views
The issue of whether the FOMC members' predisposition favors growth or inflation fighting is accentuated in today's more transparent Fed. The visibility of divergent views that could unfold in 2014 is likely to be profound compared to previous eras under the chairmanships of Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan.

Yellen, and investors who favor the policy continuity she represents, hope that a newly composed FOMC will follow her leadership and support her efforts to unwind the Fed’s unprecedented program of quantitative easing in a manner that does not provoke another financial crisis. But the emergence of a more-divided FOMC is a very real possibility in the coming year, with consequences unforeseen.

What does this mean for investors? The coming changes could undermine the notion of monetary policy continuity initially implied by Yellen's nomination. Should controversy emerge, and deepen, over the timing and speed of tapering, these disparate views could communicate uncertainty and create volatility in financial markets.


1 Press Release, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, September 18, 2013.
2 Press Release, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, October 30, 2013.

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