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Activists Descend on Fed’s Jackson Hole Meeting, Amid Anxiety About Rate Rises

The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s annual research conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo., is usually a cloistered and elite affair. Not this year.

Liberal and conservative groups of central-bank critics plan to hold events to coincide with the Fed symposium, which runs Thursday through Saturday.

The left-leaning group, called Fed Up, will be gathering in the same Jackson Lake Lodge as the Fed attendees, arguing the central bank shouldn’t raise short-term interest rates anytime soon. The right-leaning group, the American Principles Project, is holding a separate gathering nearby to discuss the effect of Fed policies on the dollar and to urge the current crop of presidential candidates to pay more attention to Fed policy issues.

Fed officials also are getting plenty of advice from other experts on the sidelines. Harvard University’s Lawrence Summers, a former Treasury secretary and one-time candidate for Fed chairman, warned in an opinion article this week that raising rates soon would be a “dangerous mistake.” Martin Feldstein, another Harvard professor, used an opinion article to blame the stock market’s current woes on past Fed policy mistakes and urge the Fed not to delay rate increases beyond September.

The Kansas City Fed conference takes place amid considerable turmoil in global financial markets. Stocks, bonds and currencies have gyrated in recent days as investors try to make sense of China’s economic slowdown and what that could mean for the U.S., the global economy and markets. The anxiety has occluded the outlook for Fed policy: Whereas market participants were recently looking to a possible mid-September Fed rate increase, it now appears the odds have diminished.

The liberal Center for Popular Democracy’s Fed Up coalition says it is planning to bring 50 or more activists to the Jackson Lake Lodge for meetings on Fed policy, economic inequality and racial disparities. The group also went to Jackson Hole last year.

Fed Up plans to hold a news conference Thursday and panel discussions with names such as, “Do Black Lives Matter to the Fed?” and “Who’s Afraid of High Wages? A History of the Inflation Bogeyman.” The group says its events are open to all and it hopes attendees at the Kansas City Fed event stop by.

Fed Up has seen successes in gaining one-on-one meetings with regional Fed bank leaders—they recently sat down with the chiefs of the Atlanta and New York Fed banks. It will bring folks to Jackson Hole who are affected by central-bank policies, but whose voices are rarely heard in the debate.

Atlanta resident Dawn O’Neill, a 48-year-old married grandmother, plans to go to Jackson Hole with the Fed Up group. Her unemployed husband struggles to find day work in the construction industry, and she works as teacher’s assistant in a day-care facility for $8.50 an hour.

“When the Fed says the economy is in recovery, and they want to raise the interest rates, I look around and I don’t see recovery,” Ms. O’Neal said. “I see lines of black men that want work, but there is no work.”

The group says that if the Fed keeps its benchmark short-term rate near zero for longer, it will generate more economic growth that creates more jobs among low-wage earners as well as higher-paid workers. The group also believes that better job growth will help benefit minorities and make discrimination harder.

“We have leaders of the Fed who don’t think slow wages and underemployment are problems,” said Ady Barkan, who leads Fed Up’s activities. “When you have leadership like that, you get policies that don’t advance the needs of working families,” he told reporters in a conference call on Monday.

Fed chiefs for years have acknowledged the painfully slow recovery of the labor market and rising income inequality. Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen gave a speech on inequality last October that garnered her criticism from congressional Republicans who believe such matters are beyond the Fed’s official mission.

Fed officials say their easy-money policies aimed at stimulating the economy are intended to benefit all Americans, not just the wealthy. Last year, former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke pointed to the recovery of the housing and labor markets as evidence the Fed’s efforts were helping the middle and lower classes.

Even now, Fed officials generally say raising their benchmark short-term rate target by a quarter-percentage point from near zero won’t offer much restraint to growth. The see a small move as reducing the amount of economic stimulus they are providing, akin to lightening the pressure on the accelerator rather than tapping the brake.

They believe that while inflation remains too low, the unemployment rate has fallen enough to start the process of getting short-term interest rates back to more historically normal levels. Some worry that if the Fed sticks with ultralow rates much longer, it could create financial-market bubbles that could wound the broader economy.

The Fed also will be challenged by the American Principles Project, which is holding its event near the central-bank conference and will count participants from the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, both Washington think tanks. In a news release, Steven Lonegan, the group’s monetary-policy director, said, “We will challenge prevailing wisdom and show how the Federal Reserve’s policies have negatively impacted wage growth and contributed to the rising cost of living.”

Wage growth has been tepid in recent years, despite Fed officials’ hopes their easy-money policies would spur stronger gains. Inflation has fallen well short of the Fed’s 2% target for years.

The Kansas City Fed declined to comment on the activity of outside groups around its conference.

Source: iBloomberg