Historical Echoes: Policymakers Gone Fishin’–The Beginnings of the Fed’s Jackson Hole Symposium
The Jackson Hole symposium (meeting, conference, summit) is referred to every which way in the media and even by Fed people themselves. The official name of the event is the “Jackson Hole Economic Policy Symposium.”
Wikipedia has a short description of the conference embedded in the entry for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
Since 1978, the Kansas City Fed has held an annual Federal Reserve symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. From 1978 to 1981 the symposia focused on agricultural economic issues. Since 1981 topics have been more broad and the symposia have gotten broader attention. In 2003 and 2005, papers were presented at the symposium that were critical of the status quo, and predicted, for example, problems with the unseen risks of derivatives. These ideas in these papers were rejected at the time, but later were seen as having predicted the financial crisis of 2007-2010.
A fine “social history” of the conference, In Late August, was published in 2011 by the Kansas City Fed. The photos should put to rest any notion that policymakers don’t know how to have a good time. In Late August examines some of the key conference topics and shows how they reflected the economic debates of the time. It also provides a wealth of interesting background information—anecdotes about the Jackson Hole valley, an account of the genesis of the conference themes, and some thoughts on the media’s relationship to the conference.
You can access all of the conference proceedings on the Kansas City Fed website. Each conference has a unique title and theme.
You can hear the optimism about the importance of the conference in the opening remarks for the first conference in 1978. Roger Guffey (at that time President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City) says:
The symposium on agricultural trade represents the first of what we hope will become an ongoing series of conferences on important economic issues. As we developed this program, our major objective was to consider an economic topic about which important public and private decisions will be made during the coming years. We also wanted the topic to be of significant concern not only to the Tenth Federal Reserve District served by this Bank, but also to the nation as a whole. A related objective was to bring together, in a suitable setting, a group of top-level decision makers from business, government, and academia who have considerable expertise in the selected topic. In doing so, the symposium would serve as a vehicle for promoting public discussion and for exchanging ideas on the issue in question.
The importance of the Jackson Hole symposium to Fed folks is illustrated in the following dialogue between Alan Greenspan and his fellow members of the Federal Open Market Committee in December 1996. (Note that the Tom Davis mentioned below was the Kansas City Fed’s research director, not the senator from South Carolina or the Saturday Night Live performer.)
CHAIRMAN GREENSPAN. Good morning, everyone. This is Tom Davis’s last meeting. He has been coming to these meetings for 20 years, and I suspect that by now he knows what they are all about, and just as he finally gets it, he has to leave. I think he has made an extraordinary niche in the system, and if there is ever a plaque in Jackson Hole, his name will be on it. One thing that you can say about the Jackson Hole symposium, which of course Tom struggled mightily to help bring into existence, is that we all put the symposium on our calendar each year and then adjust everything else. Tom, we certainly are going to miss you. [Applause]
MS. RIVLIN. I hope this does not mean the end of the Jackson Hole conferences.
CHAIRMAN GREENSPAN. If it means the end of Jackson Hole, Tom is coming back no matter where he is! [Laughter]
Finally, you might ask why Jackson Hole is the venue? “Trout,” says Paul Wiseman of the Associated Press in this recent article about how the location was decided upon. If you cannot commit the time to read the approximately forty-nine pages of text in In Late August, this article gives some idea of the history. Note that the Fed document also makes multiple references to trout.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.
Amy Farber is a research librarian in the New York Fed's Research and Statistics Group.