Bernanke To Explain Fed's Action At News Conference

The Federal Reserve meets this week to discuss interest rates. David Wessel of The Wall Street Journal tells Steve Inskeep one thing different about the meeting is that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will hold his first news conference Wednesday.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Next, we're going to try to figure out where the economy is going. Here is some of what we know. The dollar is down, but the stock market is up. Profits are up. Wages are not. Food and gasoline prices are up, but the Federal Reserve says it is not worried about inflation. David Wessel, economics editor of The Wall Street Journal has been tracking all this.

David, good morning.

Mr. DAVID WESSEL (Economic editor, The Wall Street Journal): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So has is it that some parts of the economy are improving, while others are not?

Mr. WESSEL: Well, you're right. It's a very uneven recovery. So manufacturing is doing well, increasing exports, increasing profits, increasing productivity without doing a whole lot of hiring. The stock market reflects that. People who make their money off of the stock market - the big banks, the trading - they're doing well.

And we get a glimpse of how the overall economy did in the first quarter on Friday when the government releases its first estimate of first quarter growth. Economists are betting it'll be bad. But they say these good things are beginning to work their way through the whole economy. And by the second, third quarter of this year, things will be getting better unless something else goes wrong.

INSKEEP: Although when you say manufacturers are doing more business, exporting more, making more profits but not doing a lot of hiring, right there would suggest why it's been an uneven recovery.

Mr. WESSEL: That's right. That's right. But they are now beginning to hire, and the unemployment rate is coming down. It's just coming down so painfully slowly that there's widespread anxiety about that. And not much increase in wages. And that is contributing to a lack of enthusiasm among consumers, which is keeping the economy from growing faster.

INSKEEP: Now, longtime listeners to this program or readers of your column will know that you closely track the Federal Reserve. They're meeting tomorrow and Wednesday. And this raises a question, I guess. Is the Fed going to do anything to address unemployment or do anything to address rising prices?

Mr. WESSEL: Actually not. They're kind of in a wait-and-see mode now. They're signaling they're going to keep interest rates near zero for several more months, at least. They think that they've done enough to get the economy going. And it's not such a good party that they need to take away the punch bowl, as the cliche goes there.

But actually, the big news this week isn't what they're going to do, but how they're going to explain it. Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman, for the first time ever is going to have a press conference after the meeting to explain to people why he didn't do what he didn't do.

INSKEEP: Why is that a big deal?

Mr. WESSEL: Well, it's a big deal because Fed chairmen generally haven't done them. They usually take questions in public only at congressional hearings, which usually means they don't end up talking very much about the substance of monetary policy. Mr. Bernanke has advocated for a long time doing this stuff in public. He believes in what he calls transparency.

But I think there are two other things going on. One is the Fed knows that people don't trust them. It's the residue of the financial crisis. And he's looking to use this as an opportunity to build confidence in the Fed.

And secondly, there's a big committee at the Fed, and they tend to all talk at the same time and confuse people. By being the first one out to talk to people after the Fed holds its policy meeting, he will set the tone and he will send a clear message, he hopes, that won't be so polluted by every - all the disagreements being aired in public.

INSKEEP: That said, is there a bit of a risk? A reporter asks the wrong question in the wrong way, Bernanke gives the wrong answer and somebody looks at the wrong word, and the stock market goes down 300 points.

Mr. WESSEL: You bet. And they are spending a lot of time at Fed worrying about just that and prepping him. He's watched the tapes of other central bankers doing press conferences so he can avoid that. But that's the downside risk, and they know it.

And it'll be a big challenge when Bernanke leaves and they get a new Fed chairman, who - in the past, you never had to select someone who was good on TV in real time. In the future, that will be part of the criteria they need.

INSKEEP: David, always a pleasure speaking with you.

Mr. WESSEL: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's David Wessel, economics editor of the Wall Street Journal this morning.

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