Alan Blinder on the Past, and Future, of Jackson Hole

Thursday, Sep 17, 2015
by Rachel Estrada Ryan

Alan Blinder, faculty affiliate of The Julis-Rabinowitz Center for Public Policy and Finance and Gordon S. Rentschler Memorial Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, has traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyoming almost every summer since 1982—the first year that The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City hosted their Economic Policy Symposium at the Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park. Moving to that location, “truly one of the natural wonders of the world,” says Blinder, proved integral to the success of the symposium, which shortly thereafter became the best-known conference of any of the 12 Federal Reserve Bank districts.

In selecting a national park within their district replete with trout-filled lakes and streams, the Kansas City organizers hoped to attract Paul Volcker, then-Federal Reserve Chair, who was known for his love of fly fishing. They were successful, and Volcker attended the 1982 symposium, although he wouldn’t return until the summer of 1990, after his tenure at the Federal Reserve had ended. In 1991, Volcker’s successor, Alan Greenspan, delivered the symposium’s opening remarks, an annual tradition he kept up for the fourteen summers to follow, and when Ben Bernanke assumed his role as Federal Reserve Chair, he seemed content to inherit Greenspan’s place at the podium.

After the Great Recession, Bernanke began to use his annual opening remarks at Jackson Hole to outline potential U.S. policy responses. Press coverage of the symposium heated up, as did competition among financial industry professionals vying for informal opportunities to chat with central bankers and hopefully bring new insights back to their clients. “An invitation to Jackson Hole was considered prized,” says Blinder. “About 1 in 4 participants in those years were market people.” 

The makeup of participants changed dramatically when organizers decided it was untenable to continue that trend, however; last year, they almost entirely discontinued invitations to those in financial services. The seats emptied by this shift were filled with more central bankers and finance ministers from more countries. This year, at least 40 countries were represented. “It was nice to see that level of participation, especially for central bankers from smaller countries,” says Blinder. The official theme was ‘Inflation Dynamics and Monetary Policy.’ As always, excellent papers were presented, “although most of the mealtime discussions seemed to focus on the timing and implications of the possible federal funds rate increase.”

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen wasn’t at Jackson Hole this summer to speak to her intentions, however. Yellen delivered the symposium’s opening remarks in 2014, but declined her 2015 invitation. According to theWall Street Journala statement from a federal spokesperson earlier in the year noted that Yellen “looks forward to participating in the symposium from time to time in future years as part of a public speaking schedule that includes a wide variety of venues and events.”

“It’s an interesting question: ‘If the Fed Chair isn’t present, will that lower the intensity of interest in Jackson Hole?’ Bernanke also skipped the summer of 2013, his last year as chair,” says Blinder. “Perhaps Yellen is responding to a sense of this whole thing getting too big. She may have just wanted to avoid the media hoopla.”

Interdisciplinary discussions of today’s best economic research continue to be at the center of the symposium’s schedule, however, and according to Blinder, “This year seemed as robust as ever.”