RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There is plenty of debate over what the Fed is expected to do today. The Fed won't reveal that decision until this afternoon, yet somehow they make sure that no one will be too surprised when that decision is announced. Robert Smith from our Planet Money team takes a look at how the Fed can use a wink and a nod and a few words to shape the economy.
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: You got to wonder: How does a guy who talks like this...
BEN BERNANKE: Our tools, while they are non-standard, still can create more accommodative financial conditions.
SMITH: Ben Bernanke: How does he inspire stock markets with that voice? Well, remember that speech that Bernanke gave in Jackson Hole? It wasn't recorded, but, here, I'll read you a key sentence: The Federal Reserve will provide additional policy accommodation, as needed, to promote a stronger economy.
Sounds unremarkable, until someone explains the code. Joe Gagnon was an economist at the Fed. Now he works for the Peterson Institute. And Gagnon noticed that Bernanke didn't say he wanted to promote a strong recovery. Instead, Bernanke said stronger.
JOE GAGNON: To promote a stronger economic recovery, making it clear that the recovery we've had to date is not strong enough, in their view. That's a strong indication that they feel the need to do more.
SMITH: And doing more has a technical name at the Fed: quantitative easing, QE, a way of getting more money moving and lowering interest rates. The financial news channels, Fox, Bloomberg, CNBC, they understood the code.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He definitely appears to tee it up yet again with a...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ira Jersey from Credit Suisse says expect QE3...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Look, we know that market is wired for quantitative easing. The question is...
SMITH: Believe it or not, Bernanke's cryptic communications are actually the most direct the Fed has been in its history. If you go back even 20 years ago, the Fed was almost silent. If it wanted to influence the economy, it just moved money around. It didn't tell people.
Now Ben Bernanke gives speeches and press conferences. It may be in code, but it still has a real advantage over the old way. Instead of moving all that money around, Bernanke can just tell people he's going to do it. For instance, last year, rather than just holding interest rates down, the Fed said it expected to keep rates low for years to come. Randall Kroszner, an economist at the University of Chicago, says essentially by saying it out loud, it came true.
RANDALL KROSZNER: That was actually a very powerful impact on the markets. And if you looked at the futures markets for the short-term interest rate, they actually moved quite a bit.
SMITH: Kroszner was on the Federal Reserve board a few years ago, and he says that he learned that this trick only works if people believe that the Fed is ready to back up its talk with action. You can't just promise anything and then not do it.
KROSZNER: That's one of the reasons why sometimes things aren't as crystal-clear as they could be, because circumstances can change. It has to be a little bit more nuanced.
SMITH: There are, though, economists who argue that this is not the time for nuance, that the Fed should be even more open than it is. Rather than hint, the Fed should essentially make specific promises. Bernanke could say in order to promote a stronger economy, we will do whatever it takes to get the unemployment rate under, say, 6 percent. Or he could say I won't stop until the economy is really booming at this rate. Few expect the Fed to go that far today. It may be opening up, communicating more, but Fed habits change slowly. Robert Smith, NPR News.