Progressive Activists Take A Seat For The People At Federal Reserve Retreat

This time, top officials gathered to listen to the reformers' ideas.
Fed Up activists, seen here in February 2016, have converged on the Federal Reserve's annual Jackson Hole retreat this week.
Fed Up activists, seen here in February 2016, have converged on the Federal Reserve's annual Jackson Hole retreat this week.

Two years ago this week, the nonprofit Center for Popular Democracy and allied groups launched the Fed Up campaign, aimed at making the Federal Reserve more accountable to workers and communities of color. They converged then on the Jackson Lake Lodge in Wyoming, where Fed officials decamp every year to discuss policy and hobnob with the economic elite.

How much political headway has the campaign made since then? This year, Fed Up activists were essentially put on the schedule for senior Federal Reserve officials, with a major meeting at the Jackson Hole summit.

The group met Thursday, the first day of the summit, with eight of the 12 presidents of the regional Federal Reserve banks and two members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

Fed Up activists have met individually with the governors and regional bank presidents before; they spoke with some Fed officials less formally at the past two Jackson Hole gatherings. This is the first time, however, that their delegation of some 120 rank-and-file activists had met with so many of the central bank’s decision-makers in one place.

“It is kind of like a mini-FOMC,” said Fed Up campaign manager Jordan Haedtler prior to the event, likening it to a meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, the Fed’s policymaking body.

The progressive campaign is calling for the central bank to wait for the economic recovery to reach more broadly across America before raising its benchmark interest rate again, a move that slows the pace of economic growth to head off price inflation.

It has also criticized the Fed for the lack of racial, gender and professional background diversity among its senior officials, arguing that only a central bank that looks like America can craft policy in the best interests of all citizens.

The Fed officials at the meeting were Esther George, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, which hosts the annual symposium; New York Fed president William Dudley; Dallas Fed president Robert Kaplan; Minneapolis Fed president Neel Kashkari; Cleveland Fed president Loretta Mester; Boston Fed president Eric Rosengren; San Francisco Fed president John Williams; Richmond Fed president Jeffrey Lacker, and Fed governors Stanley Fischer and Lael Brainard.

“They were really impressed with how well prepared we were,” said Haedtler after the meeting. “They were heartened by the discussion.”

“We’ll see how things go in September,” he added, referring to the next opportunity for an interest rate hike.

Bill Medley, a spokesman for the Kansas City Fed, also gave positive feedback about the meeting.

“It was a productive dialogue, as it always is, and we look forward to continuing the conversation,” Medley said.

Fed Up has had a banner year so far. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton embraced the broad contours of its platform in May after weeks of private discussion with group representatives.

“Secretary Clinton believes that the Fed needs to be more representative of America as a whole as well as that commonsense reforms — like getting bankers off the boards of regional Federal Reserve banks — are long overdue,” a Clinton spokesman said at the time.

But Clinton stopped short of signing on to a bolder reform proposal that Fed Up rolled out in April, which would turn the central bank system into an entirely public institution. The Federal Reserve Board of Governors is already a federal agency, whose top officials are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. But the 12 regional banks it supervises are owned by the private financial institutions they serve. (Fed Up released a more detailed version of its idea on Monday.)

The private nature of these banks is a major reason why they are run overwhelmingly by white men with backgrounds in finance, Fed Up argues. There has never been a black or Latino president of one of the regional banks, the group notes in its reform proposal, and one-third of the current bank heads are alumni of Wall Street power player Goldman Sachs.

We have clearly reshaped the discourse. Jordan Haedtler of Fed Up

Fed Up’s moment at this year’s Jackson Hole symposium was not without its hiccups.

Earlier this month, Fed Up were informed that the Jackson Lake Lodge had canceled over a dozen of its room reservations. The hotel said a “computer glitch” had led to the overbooking of 18 rooms. But the fact that 13 of those rooms were booked by Fed Up raised concerns that they were being targeted.

Although the activists found lodging at a nearby resort, Fed Up filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, and members of Congress sympathetic to their cause sent Fed Chair Janet Yellen a letter asking for an explanation.

In an apparent gesture of detente, George, the Kansas City Fed president, offered Fed Up the big meeting, and the campaign withdrew its objections to the lodging snafu.

Fed Up agreed also to limit its presence in the lodge’s halls during a scheduled cocktail hour. In the past, activists have clustered inside the hotel to confront Fed officials in person. The group held a press conference-cum-rally outside the lodge before Thursday’s meeting. It also plans to run teach-in seminars and to canvass the city’s low-income neighborhoods to spread the word about Fed reform.

But Haedtler, Fed Up’s campaign manager, wanted to focus on Thursday’s meeting. It is evidence, he said, that his fledgling movement’s priorities have made it into the mainstream.

“We have clearly reshaped the discourse,” Haedtler said.

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