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What to expect in Yellen's swan song: 'She's not a showboater'

  • Fed Chair Janet Yellen delivers her final news conference Wednesday as head of the central bank.
  • While Yellen could take the opportunity to speak more candidly than she has in the past, she's expected instead to stick to a carefully worded script.
  • Current Fed Governor Jerome Powell will likely take over for Yellen when her term expires in February.

Janet Yellen could use her final news conference as Federal Reserve chair to sound off on a variety of issues, from the move toward bank deregulation to the central bank's critics to the state of the country under President Donald Trump.

Expect none of that.

Instead, Yellen is likely to offer the same approach to her last Q&A with the media as she did the first: diplomatic — reserved and with a healthy smattering of wonky Fed speak aimed at addressing questions without pinning the central bank to some future course of action.

The former head of the San Francisco Fed likely will yield to Fed Governor Jerome Powell, who has been nominated for the post by Trump and likely will get the full Senate's confirmation.

"My guess is she wants to make the handoff as quiet and smooth as possible," said Ed Keon, managing director and portfolio manager at QMA. "She knows it's not going to be her calling the shots next year. She's not a showboater. I think she will want to offer a dignified exit and leave things to her predecessor."

Powell will ascend to the chair at an interesting time.

The Fed is on a slow but consistent rate-hiking course that likely will be called into question next year if inflation continues to miss the central bank's 2 percent target. At the same time, the Fed is reducing — again, slowly but surely — its $4.5 trillion balance sheet of bonds it accumulated in its three rounds of stimulus known as quantitative easing.

If Yellen does veer away from the traditional parley with reporters, it may be too blow the Fed's horn at least a little for navigating those changes without causing major disruptions to the economy.

"To some extent she will want to go back and in a humble way declare victory by pointing out the progress that the economy has made on so many fronts," said David Donabedian, chief investment officer of CIBC Atlantic Trust Private Wealth Management. "She will strenuously avoid anything that sounds like she's telling Jay Powell what he should do. She will as much as possible tout the achievements of her term but not create any expectations for the new guy."

Markets widely expect Powell to continue monetary policy in a fairly status quo manner. Fed officials currently have indicated that three more rate hikes are likely in 2018, though the market is expecting only two.

Where the two may differ is on regulation, with Powell a bit more open to relaxing some of the banking rules put into place after the financial crisis.

The reaction to his approach will be interesting. Yellen had a few missteps early on with public statements, so the market may have to allow her successor at least a bit of a learning curve.

"History suggests there's a little tolerance there," Donabedian said. "If you remember back to Yellen's first couple of months, she made a couple of stumbles and was correctly forgiven for it, and has been just spot on as a messenger since then."

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