Bernanke's absence from Jackson Hole leaves markets guessing

The Tetons are the backdrop to the Federal Reserve's annual economic symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Price Chambers | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The Tetons are the backdrop to the Federal Reserve's annual economic symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

JACKSON HOLE, WY—The absence of Ben Bernanke from the Fed's annual economic retreat here looms almost as large as the surrounding Grand Teton mountains that frame the meeting.

Not only is the chairman's absence a break with a 25-year tradition, but it comes at a time when markets crave the kind of clarity on the direction of monetary policy that only the head of the Fed can deliver.

The minutes of the Fed's July meeting, released Wednesday, show a divided Fed with some officials believing the central bank should be patient before reducing the amount of stimulus in the economy, while others appearing ready to act very soon.

A surging 10-year yield, nearing 3 percent, adds to the uncertainty and suggests that the Fed is losing control of the long-end of the bond market. Meanwhile stocks have given up a significant portion of their gains amid concern over the outlook for earnings, growth and monetary policy.

(Read more: Cauldron of hawks emerges on Fed policy committee)

While Bernanke will not address the Kansas City Fed's annual meeting—the first time a chairman has not addressed the group since 1988—another notable absence will be European Central Bank president Mario Draghi.

If that weren't enough, the backdrop of the meeting is further clouded by the question of who President Obama will nominate to replace Bernanke, whose term ends in January.

Still, several Fed bank presidents and governors will be in attendance and they will hear research paper presented that gauge the effectiveness of the Fed's quantitative easing strategy to lower long-term interest rates. As they have in years past, papers delivered in Jackson Hole can have a strong influence on Fed thinking.

(Read more: Looking for Fed clues? Forget about Jackson Hole)

A paper delivered last year by Columbia University economist Michael Woodford offered an important theoretical backdrop for the Fed's QE3 program and its use of forward guidance as a tool of monetary policy.

This year, the opening spot, normally reserved for the chairman, will go to noted Stanford University Professor Robert Hall, who has had his doubts in the past about the Fed's quantitative easing program. Two Northwestern University researchers, Arvind Krishnamurthy and Annette Vissing-Jorgensen, are also on the agenda. In the past, they have reported disparate results in different interest rate markets from quantitative easing.

Outside the main sessions, talk in the hallways is sure to center on the debate about the two leading candidates to replace Bernanke: Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who is believed to be the president's top choice.

—By CNBC's Steve Liesman. Follow him on Twitter @steveliesman.