CNBC's Schacknow: Minn. Fed's Plain Talk; Slippery Figures

Peter Schacknow
Peter Schacknow

Stern Speaks
That would be Gary, the president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, not Howard, the radio disk jockey -- although like his radio namesake, Gary Stern decided not to shy away from a controversial issue.

In recent weeks, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan has drawn much market attention -- some say too much -- with comments about the economy and the possibility of recession. Fed officials, when asked about Greenspan, have generally shied away from saying anything, other than to point out that Greenspan has avoided specifically commenting on current Fed policy.

In a Q&A session following a speech in Dayton, Ohio, Stern said that Greenspan was free to say whatever he wanted, and suggested that perhaps the markets were paying too much attention to his remarks.

We routinely monitor Fed speeches, and the Q&A which often follows, for potential market-moving comments and anything else that might be of interest. Most of it is pot-boiler stuff: Inflation is our most significant concern, the U.S. economy can grow moderately this year, the Fed stands ready to respond to changes in data, etc.

This, while not anything that would rock the markets, jumped right off the page -- simply because you don’t expect a Fed official to be that blunt. Yes, it’s a simple issue and Stern gave a typically straightforward comment -- but it was refreshing to hear someone FINALLY address this -- and the touch of apparent exasperation made it even more interesting. Enough so that we had "Power Lunch" anchor Sue Herera talk a bit about information we would have otherwise just put up on screen briefly.

Tricky Numbers
I often expound (others would say “complain”) about how tricky it is to keep our market factoids up-to-date on days like today, when the markets are volatile and any number you write for onscreen presentation is likely to be outdated instantly.

Today, we move to advanced class for market factoid gatherers: crude oil.

Stock market numbers can be tricky, but they’re straightforward. Crude oil -- or any commodity, for that matter -- is not.

The problem arises because you can buy oil for delivery in a specified month, and the one you see quoted on TV is usually the “lead” month -- in today’s case, May.

That’s all well and good, but it gets confusing when you’re trying to determine the last time a certain price level was breached. You can look at the May contract back to last year, but the price of the May contract at that time wasn’t relevant to the world at large. What you need to do is look at the prices for the lead month contract, which changes -- no, wait, don’t tell me -- once a month.

It’s quite a bit more time-consuming than looking up stock-market quotes, but I have a special method that works quite well: I ask someone else to do it. Usually it’s NYMEX producer Jill Woerner or reporter Sharon Epperson. Jill informed me that crude had hit a nearly 7-month high. Hey, it’s busy here at the Breaking News Desk!