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Jackson Hole flying little lower this year without Fed chair

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke testifies before a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on "The Semiannua
Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke testifies before a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on "The Semiannua

By Alister Bull

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Central bankers from around the globe gather later this week in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but for once, the absence of the Federal Reserve chairman means their annual get-together is not likely to spoil the summer vacation of traders on Wall Street.

Fed chief Ben Bernanke declined his annual invitation, breaking a 25-year tradition, and Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen - a top contender to replace Bernanke in January 2014 - will only be moderating a panel.

As a result, there is no keynote Fed speech to open the conference, and the chances of a deliberate effort to signal an upcoming change in U.S. monetary policy have been lowered dramatically.

In prior years, Bernanke has used the venue to prepare financial markets for shifts in the Fed's policy stance.

"In the past, the news that has come out of Jackson Hole has been because the principle presenters are in a position of policy prominence, and it seems to be lighter ... this year," said Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at Northern Trust in Chicago.

Despite his absence, Bernanke very likely will be at the center of the chatter on the sidelines of the conference, as attendees ponder who will replace him when his term expires. U.S. President Barack Obama has said both Yellen and his former economic adviser Lawrence Summers are top candidates for the job, and he will make up his mind in the fall. Summers is also not attending.

Economists expect the Fed to start scaling back monthly bond purchases at its meeting next month, but as opposed to getting a steer from a speaker in Wyoming, they will have to rely on the minutes of the central bank's July meeting - due to be released on Wednesday - to fine tune expectations.

That said, the event sponsored by the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank will still be the best place to hear high-powered, informed debate about the latest thinking in global central banking.

This year's conference focuses on unconventional monetary policy and the evidence on whether quantitative easing, forward guidance or a combination of both provide policymakers with the most firepower with interest rates cut to near zero.

The discussion could not be more timely, coming just a few weeks after the Bank of England and European Central Bank followed the Fed by providing guidance on how long they would keep interest rates low.

"Since you have had trading all over the world really keyed on exactly how the central banks answer that question, the outcomes of those discussions have the potential to be tremendously influential," said Tannenbaum.

Unfortunately, neither BoE chief Mark Carney nor ECB President Mario Draghi will attend this year. But Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda will be there, and BoE No. 2 Charles Bean and ECB Vice President Vitor Constancio will also make the trip.

The remoteness of the conference at the base of the Grand Teton mountain range has long been a key attraction, especially those who relish hiking or fishing in the nearby Snake River, renowned among fly fishermen, including former Fed chief Paul Volcker, who attended several times.

But from a policy perspective, Bernanke's remarks opening the conference on Friday morning have always grabbed the spotlight.

And while the usual crop of senior Fed officials in attendance will speak to reporters on the sidelines of the conference, this time around that chatter is not likely to coalesce into a clear message on what to expect on policy.

In fact, the Fed has already said plenty to prepare financial markets for a reduction in its $85 billion monthly bond buying program later this year.

Economists expect the Fed to move at its September 17-18 meeting, but will wait for August jobs data, due to be released on September 6, for a stronger sense of whether the economy is ready for a move.

They can also mine the minutes of last month's meeting for clues on how strongly the Fed's policy-setting committee is leaning toward September. Bernanke has already said he expects the third round of quantitative easing, or QE3, will be wound down by the middle of 2014, provided the economy improves as expected.

(Reporting by Alister Bull, editing by G Crosse)

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