the money game

The Reporter Who Knows What Jerome Powell Is Thinking

Or, at least, that is Nick Timiraos’s reputation on Wall Street and in Washington.

“Fed whisperer” Nick Timiraos. Photo: Greg Kahn
“Fed whisperer” Nick Timiraos. Photo: Greg Kahn

When financial reporters enter the headquarters of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System at the intersection of 20th and C Streets in Washington, D.C., they first remove their shoes. As they proceed through a sequence of two metal detectors, they must leave their phones and any other “smart” devices behind; even a 1980s Casio watch, with its built-in calculator, has been considered too smart, owing to the fact that “there’s a chip in there,” one reporter was told.

They continue into what’s known as the “lockup,” a secure black box of a room where their special, designated computers — without Wi-Fi or Bluetooth capabilities and which they had previously mailed to an address for inspection — are waiting for them. “The Fed is the most ironclad institution in D.C.; it’s absolutely insane,” says one reporter on the Fed beat. “No other agency requires that — not even the Pentagon.”

It is a ritual undertaken eight times a year when the 12-member Federal Open Market Committee meets to decide and announce any changes to the nation’s core interest rate — in essence, the price of borrowing money anywhere in the economy. At 1:30 p.m. on September 21, half an hour before the latest announcement, the reporters get the news first: This time, the Fed has elected to raise interest rates by three-quarters of a point, a large move by historical standards and the third supersize increase in a row. Reporters receive a copy of the central bank’s statement explaining the decision and go to work writing their stories in Microsoft Word. Then, at 2 p.m., like clockwork, the internet switch flips on again and reporters file their articles before shuffling into the briefing room to grill Fed chair Jerome Powell, whose thinking about the proper level for interest rates — with inflation hovering at a decades-high 8.5 percent — is without exaggeration one of the biggest factors affecting the world’s economy. Even at the level of individual Americans, the practical effects of Powell’s decisions loom large — everything from the value of your 401(k) to your mortgage rate (or rent) to your chances of ending up jobless are directly related to the Fed’s actions.

But with all those elaborate security protocols to keep the outside world in suspense about its plans, there is one journalist inside the windowless room who has developed a reputation for knowing what the Fed is going to do before everyone else does. On Wall Street and in Washington, Nick Timiraos, chief economics correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, is playfully referred to as the “Fed whisperer” or even “Chairman Timiraos” for his recent prescience about the central bank’s next move. The Fed regularly reshuffles its press-conference seating chart, but Timiraos is always placed front row and center, face-to-face with Powell. “The general air inside the press room is definitely that Nick is the big character in the press corps,” says another journalist who has covered the Fed. “It’s almost like he broke the seal.”

Fed chair Jerome Powell speaking to reporters on Sept. 21, following the decision to raise interest rates by three-quarters of a point. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

During the pandemic, the Fed — the inspiration for the “money printer go brrr” meme — effectively propped up financial markets and the economy as a whole by gobbling up trillions in bonds. Now, faced with the repercussions of that easy-money policy — namely, soaring inflation — Powell and company are mired in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t conundrum, in which the best way to avoid a devastating price spiral is to cause a (hopefully minor) recession. That has made the Fed and its hell-bent commitment to hiking rates a popular target of criticism. Voices from across Wall Street to Elizabeth Warren to the United Nations have railed against Powell’s aggressive rate-hiking strategy, generally arguing that it harms working-class Americans and does unnecessary damage to the economy. (The U.N. maintains that it is hurting poorer countries.) All of which means that Timiraos’s beat is more high-profile than ever — as is his reputation for being ahead of the curve.

The extra attention on Timiraos started a little more than a year ago, when he correctly reported (nearly two months in advance) that the Fed would begin winding down its pandemic stimulus in November. But the buzz began in earnest on the eve of the Fed’s mid-June meeting. Timiraos wrote an article suggesting the Fed was “Likely to Consider 0.75-Percentage-Point Rate Rise” when the consensus bet among investors around the world was for just a half-point hike. At the time, the Fed had been in a blackout period, in which its officials do not speak with reporters, for over a week. But Timiraos was right: The Fed subsequently hiked rates three-quarters of a point. “I independently confirmed that it was essentially a leak to him,” says the journalist who covered the Fed. “And that wouldn’t go to anybody else.” Since then, Timiraos has accurately called each of the Fed’s next moves, writing in July that the Fed was “preparing to lift” rates — at a moment many observers were expecting a pause — and, in September, that it was “on a path to raise” them once again by three-quarters of a point, swaying Wall Street odds-makers in that direction. On September 21, of course, three quarters of a point was exactly what Powell delivered.

Timiraos, who has worked at WSJ since graduating from Georgetown and covered the Fed for the past five years, has become a kind of economic indicator in his own right — his stories and Twitter feed are a must-read for Fed watchers the world over. “Right now, hundreds of interns and first-year analysts have one job on Wall Street, constantly refreshing a @NickTimiraos search on looking for an update,” Jim Bianco, a well-known macroeconomic analyst and president of Bianco Research, tweeted during the quiet period ahead of the Fed’s September meeting. “@NickTimiraos better have his phone charged, as he should be getting a ‘Blue Horseshoe likes (75 or 100)’ call any moment now.” (It’s a reference from the movie Wall Street — the nickname is code for Gordon Gekko.) Bianco sees it as everyone just doing their jobs though. “It’s not Timiraos but the seat he occupies,” explains Bianco, referring to WSJ’s towering stature in U.S. financial media. “And in fairness to the Fed, it’s a way to get information out that everybody has equal access to. No one, from a retail investor to a powerful investment banker, has any more advantage when an unexpected leak pops up in The Wall Street Journal.” (Officially, leaks at the Fed are considered rare and scandalous; in 2017, a leak of confidential information to a financial analyst led to the resignation of a prominent Fed official as well as a criminal investigation.)

The 38-year-old Fed whisperer is clean-shaven with freckled cheeks flushed from the summer sun below a ruffle of brown hair; John Krasinski would be a lock to play Timiraos in a movie. He was up-front before our meeting that he could not discuss his sources while acknowledging, “And I know that’s a lot of the focus people might have.” When we get coffee the afternoon before September’s Fed announcement, he refuses to even discuss the lockup logistics: “We’re not supposed to talk about how the sausage gets made.”

In March, Timiraos published a book, Trillion Dollar Triage: How Jay Powell and the Fed Battled a President and a Pandemic — and Prevented Economic Disaster, that focuses on Powell’s unprecedented response to the pandemic. Timiraos remembers the night of March 18, 2020, when the Fed put out an emergency lending program after he’d already gone to bed. “And I got a phone call saying, ‘Check your email,’” he recalls, declining to say whom it was from. (Warren Buffett hailed the book at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting as “a marvelous account.”) The volume includes extensive detail of Powell’s personal and family history, though Timiraos declined to acknowledge Powell’s participation in his reporting: “I don’t really want to get into what people say to me,” he says.

Regardless of whether Timiraos has backstage access, his track record is so perfect that the most highly respected investors take his reporting as gospel. “He, at times, becomes the chosen messenger for the Fed when the FOMC wants to get word out to the markets,” says Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. Adds Mohamed El-Erian, former CEO of bond giant PIMCO and widely considered something of a market oracle himself, “His signaling of what the Fed is thinking and likely to do has proven to be extremely insightful.”

Both Timiraos and his editor, Nell Henderson, were reluctant to embrace the spotlight this article threatened to shine on him. “Nick is an oracle today, but he’s been preceded by other oracles both at the Journal and elsewhere,” says Henderson.

Indeed, Timiraos comes from a tradition of Fed whisperers — or at least suspected ones. Alan Greenspan once devoted a significant portion of a 1993 FOMC meeting to discussing the source of leaks to WSJ’s then-Fed reporter David Wessel, according to the official minutes. “I used to joke that the most important thing to know about Alan Greenspan was that most of his girlfriends were reporters,” says Wessel, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He once gave his colleague on WSJ’s Fed beat, Greg Ip, a silver tray as a gag gift — a reference to the common assumption that Ip’s scoops were delivered that way. Wessel paints a picture of what takes place behind the scenes as Fed officials ahead of blackout periods take meetings with reporters, who in turn read between the lines. “If you’re good at covering the thing, you kind of know how they think, and you have some sense of where they’re going, you can have your hypothesis either confirmed or denied,” he says. “I think what people sometimes mistake is they think the only way you know what the Fed is going to do is if someone tells you. And maybe that happens sometimes. I’m not saying it doesn’t.”

At times, it can be an awkward situation for an accomplished journalist to be seen merely as conduit for leaks; less flattering depictions describe Timiraos as a “Fed mouthpiece.” As we sit outside La Colombe around the corner from his office on Connecticut Avenue, Timiraos mostly keeps his arms folded across his chest. But when I read a couple of analysts’ tweets about him, he gets a sheepish half-grin on his face. (“Do they say that?” he asks when I reference the “oracle.”) “I cannot control what people are going to say,” he says. “If people think that they’re getting good analysis, then that’s great.” Over and over he repeats, “I want to let the work speak for itself.”

On Fed meeting days, Timiraos says, his routine is actually quite pedestrian. He drops his 5-year-old twins off at school before heading to WSJ’s nondescript Washington bureau, then Ubers or takes the bus to the Martin Building, where the Fed currently holds its press conferences. “I don’t find it boring at all. I mean, I love it. But I recognize that they put out a statement every six to eight weeks that’s basically the same,” he says. “The first thing I do when I get the statement is go look at which words changed,” explaining that he runs a compare-and-contrast function in Microsoft Word and focuses on what shows up in red. On the way back, he usually picks up a sandwich or salad from Pret.

In researching his book, Timiraos read all of the Fed meeting minutes going back to World War II. “I’m kind of a history nerd,” he says. But he adds that he by no means sees himself as a reliable economic forecaster. “I don’t feel like most of the time I have a great read on what’s happening,” he says. Case in point: He’d been coveting a house in the D.C. suburbs at the beginning of the pandemic but decided to wait it out. “I looked at it and said, ‘Oh my God. We’re going to be back in foreclosure city here,’” he says. (Residential real estate went on a historic run instead.) “So not great financial insight on my part. I should have bought a house two years ago.” He won’t opine on whether we are headed for a recession. “I don’t think that’s my job. If you get into trying to form opinions about things, you probably shouldn’t be a news reporter,” he says.

Lately, he has been talking to his barber about the economy. “I like to ask him how business is doing,” Timiraos says. “Barbers are good: They kind of have their finger on the pulse of things — if people were getting more haircuts or not. My barber, who works downtown, wants to know if I’m in the office again, because his customers are not coming back to the office.”

Timiraos, who covered the 2008 election, is keeping an eye on how the Fed’s actions, and the economy’s response, could have electoral consequences. “I saw a tweet thread from the head of a labor union today kind of preemptively criticizing the Fed for raising interest rates. And that’s interesting to me, because there was a political dimension to this,” he says. “What if, a year from now, we’re dealing with a much higher unemployment rate but still high inflation? What does that look like politically?”

To write about what the Fed is going to do means that being wrong would be very obvious; unlike, say, a scoop about White House plans (where even spending-bill amounts fluctuate), Timiraos’s reporting on interest rate hikes has a very exact number attached. He has never been wrong, according to Henderson. But Timiraos rejects the suggestion that being in this specific prediction game could be stressful. “I don’t feel high pressure,” he says. “I’m not a war reporter.” (He says he’s focused on reporting facts: “It’s not like I’m trying to predict what’s going to happen.”) He does worry, though, that readers might interpret his writing as being the voice of the Fed, even when he’s just analyzing. “I think sometimes there’s a danger that people will think you’re saying something that you’re not,” he says.

When it comes to covering the Fed announcements themselves, though, the job is “actually easy,” says Timiraos. “The story will write itself. It’s like covering the playoff game: You know something interesting is going to happen, and you just have to show up.”

The Reporter Who Knows What Jerome Powell Is Thinking