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BackInTheBlackBlog is on vacation this week, but let me offer just some brief reactions to two pieces of news of last week.

You may have seen repeated stories about Federal Reserve Governors and regional bank presidents doing the rounds to speak about monetary policy.  I attended a speech by Jerome Powell, one of the most recently appointed Governors.  I worked with Jay on his efforts to explain the dangers of playing a game of chicken over the statutory debt limit, and can testify that he is knowledgeable, skilled and impartial.  He will be an excellent Governor for these trying times.  But his remarks this week illustrate just how difficult the Fed’s job will be.

The speaking rush by the Fed comes because of what Jay described as an out-of-scale market reaction to Chairman Bernanke’s press conference after the most recent Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting.  At that meeting, the members downgraded their individual near-term economic forecasts, but upgraded their forecasts for a few quarters down the road – citing evidence that the economic recovery has grown firmer roots.  On the basis of those stronger expectations, Chairman Bernanke spoke in his press conference of his anticipation that the Fed would begin to taper off its current monthly purchases of longer-term securities in the open market as of September of this year, and would reach zero purchases by the middle of next year.

Reacting to this discussion, the financial markets went bonkers, with large one-week increases in long-term Treasury and mortgage interest rates.  This raised the prospect of an adverse near-instantaneous feedback loop from housing-is-recovering to OMG-the-Fed-is-going-to-tighten to sell-bonds to higher-mortgage-rates to housing-plunges.  It was a fear of such a market reaction that sent Fed Governors and Bank Presidents rushing to the microphones and television cameras.

Jay’s message – beyond characterizing the market reaction as out-of-scale to Chairman Bernanke’s signal – was to emphasize the magic words, “data-driven.”  Jay made clear that Chairman Bernanke intended to describe a scenario that would play out if the central tendency of the Governors’ forecasts materialized; if the economy turned out softer, the Fed would delay its tapering off of the asset purchases.

That is of course the right policy process.  But here is the rub:  We are in a truly unprecedented situation; and there is a very fine line between being “data-driven” and “driving in the rear-view mirror.”  Chairman Bernanke and the FOMC decided to send their initial signal on the basis of a forecast.  Because the data lag actual events, even the FOMC’s final decision necessarily will be made substantially on the basis of a forecast of the future – else it could be too late.  And because the situation is unprecedented – with the Fed sending pressure through previously unexplored channels to stimulate economic activity – the reactions of the market to further unprecedented steps, like withdrawing quantitative easing, are unpredictable and could easily be just as excessive as were the reactions to Chairman Bernanke’s press conference.  So to avoid acting too late, and therefore quite possibly causing or exaggerating bubbles in the economy or setting off an accelerating inflation, the FOMC will have to act on a forecast – just as they spoke on a forecast through Chairman Bernanke after their recent meeting.

The FOMC clearly has thought this unprecedented situation through about as well as can be done.  But there should be no doubt that they face a daunting task.  Their decisions necessarily will depend on judgment calls about an unknowable future.

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As you may have read by now, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has announced that he will not seek re-election in November of 2014.  Washington is abuzz with speculation about the implications for policy (tax and health reform) and politics (Democratic control of the Senate, the identity of the next Finance Committee Chairman).

The most off-base chatter is the suggestion that a retiring Chairman Baucus will pursue different policy than would a campaigning Chairman Baucus.  Such talk is a branch office of the chatter in late 2008, late 2010 and late 2012 that a monumental budget deal would emerge from those “lame-duck” sessions of Congress.  The thinking (to be kind) was that departing Members of Congress, at last freed from the tyranny of their constituents, finally could vote their true convictions and would turn a policy 180 to make the tough choices.

What we learned, instead, was that those free-at-last Members of Congress actually had been voting their convictions all along, and had no reason or inclination to change their stripes in the dying days of their final Congresses.

Chairman Baucus fits that mold.  What he has done has been to represent his constituents, as he understood their views to be.  (One can of course argue the dichotomy between representing, on the one hand, and educating and leading, on the other hand.)  It turns out that Montana is different from what many metro-centric pundits live and breathe.  I would like to think that economics and policy science are geography-neutral, but I fear that they really are geography-ignorant.  My eyes were opened by a private conversation with a Washington reporter newly transplanted from upstate, rural New York, who related that the really good jobs in her home town were carrying the mail – because they provided the employee benefits (especially good health insurance) that we in Washington consider to be a prerequisite of even a near-poverty standard of living, plus a pay scale that is set nationally and approximates more closely compensation in urban areas.

So people in Montana do not see the issues of the day in precisely the same light that we “dazzling urbanites” do.  Chairman Baucus has reflected the perspective of Montanans in Washington.  He likely will continue to do so until he heads back home.

There is plenty of speculation over whether the Senate majority will see major action on tax reform (and health reform, also primarily under the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee) as helpful or harmful to their 2014 electoral prospects.  Politicos further wonder how Senator Ron Wyden, who in 2015 will be the senior Democrat on Finance (Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), now senior to Senator Wyden, has announced that he also will retire next year), will weigh his probable hopes to become Chairman (if the Democrats maintain their majority) against his willingness to take risks.  Recall that Senator Wyden has designed adventurous reform packages in collaboration with Republicans (former Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) on taxes, former Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT) and current House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) on health care).  He will need to consider how any positions that he takes in these two years will affect his standing with the Democratic Senate leadership.

But all of that amounts to a matrix of suppositions at this point.  About the only thing that we do know is that Chairman Baucus will have more time on his hands, given that he is not running for re-election.  Frequent trips back home would eat up a lot of his time, given that he has among the worst commutes of all Members of Congress (even worse than mine, by at least a little).  His retirement decisions will free him from some of that.

Still, all of this is mostly window dressing.  Chairman Baucus has an important position, but to accomplish anything he must have the support of a majority in the Finance Committee, plus the cooperation of the Senate Democratic leadership to get any bill to the floor.  And then, under the most likely scenarios, he will need 60 votes on the floor (although it is conceivable that he could have a reconciliation instruction from a budget resolution, which could allow passage with 50 votes plus the Vice President), plus a majority in the House.  And that final product must be acceptable to the President, as well.  The fundamentals are daunting, and whether Chairman Baucus’s retirement will facilitate or prevent major budget action is anyone’s guess.