JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. (AP) — Ben Bernanke is a no-show. No matter. Despite the absence of the Federal Reserve chairman, this year’s annual economic conference in Jackson Hole has once again proved a destination of choice for central bankers.
In international banking circles, the Jackson Hole gathering, held each August in a rustic lodge in Grand Teton National Park, is akin to Academy Awards night. If you’re invited, the message is clear: You’re someone who matters.
This is the first year in more than two decades that a Fed chief hasn’t given the keynote speech to open the two-day conference, which ended Saturday. News last spring that Bernanke would skip this year’s conference was taken as a signal that he’ll leave the Fed when his term ends in January.
With speculation intensifying over his successor, a spotlight has fallen on Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen, one of two leading contenders. Yellen is here. Her chief rival, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, is not.
Yellen is among 10 members of the 19-member Federal Open Market Committee in attendance. The FOMC comprises the Fed board members and regional bank presidents who set the central bank’s interest-rate policies.
Central bankers from every major economy, from Germany and Britain to Japan and China, are here. So are those of smaller nations from Albania to Malta.
Among the 130 guests are many scholars of economic policy. They’re joined by top economists from financial firms — at least those who managed to score an invite.
Attendees spend hours in a windowless conference room hearing and discussing presentations of academic research. They do get afternoons off — to hike, go rafting or take bus tours. But even against the backdrop of majestic mountain grandeur, many of the Ph.D. scholars have been known to go right on debating economics through the day.
One issue not on the agenda but a hot topic at the edges of the conference: The campaigns waged by supporters of Yellen and Summers to secure the nomination of their candidate. From the use of Twitter and opinion columns to behind-the-scenes lobbying and letters signed by Senate Democrats, the battle to influence the president’s mind has been raging.
Fed officials here have been careful not to take sides in the contest, at least not publicly. They do agree on this: They’ve not seen anything quite like this summer’s public jousting.
Dennis Lockhart, head of the Atlanta regional Fed bank, called it unprecedented. But he said the jockeying over the chairman’s job is having no effect on the Fed’s policymaking.
“The chairman’s leadership is as strong as it has ever been,” Lockhart said in an interview on CNBC.
He was addressing concerns that the prolonged contest to succeed Bernanke might weaken his influence as chairman by solidifying the perception that he’s a lame duck.
James Bullard, head of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, noted that a change in the Fed chairmanship has been fairly unusual since World War II. Bernanke has served for nearly eight years. Two of his predecessors — William McChesney Martin (1951-1970) and Alan Greenspan (1987-2006) — served for a combined nearly four decades.
As for whom he would prefer as chairman, Yellen or Summers, Bullard, also interviewed on CNBC, struck a diplomatic note.
They’re both “great economists,” he said.
Yellen did have a modest role to play at this year’s conference, serving as the moderator for Saturday’s session. It was a job she performed with fair minded diligence.
“My job today is to be a ruthless time keeper,” she told the crowd in her opening comments. And she kept to her word, turning over numbered cards signaling to the presenters how much time they had left to present papers on such esoteric topics as global liquidity and cross-border capital flows.
She then had the job of picking the lucky participants in the audience who got to ask questions. At one point, she called on Donald Kohn, her predecessor as vice chairman at the Federal Reserve and one of three names President Barack Obama has provided as the leading candidates for the Fed chairman’s job. Yellen and Summers are the other two.
Yellen didn’t offer any substantive comments during her moderating stint, but there was one brief moment she had to have enjoyed.
Acknowledging her introduction, Princeton economics professor Jean-Pierre Landau said, “Thank you very much, Madam Chairman.”
Ah. Music to her ears.
At the opening dinner Thursday night, Esther George, who as head of the Kansas City regional Fed bank is the conference host, had some fun with the topic of Bernanke’s absence.
“Sometimes,” George said in her welcoming remarks, “those who regularly attend are not able to make it. We make it a practice never to talk about those who turn us down.”
“Despite my personal disappointment,” she went on, she’d be happy to welcome back Ken Rogoff for future conferences.
Her mention of Rogoff, a well-known Harvard economist, rather than Bernanke, drew laughter from the audience.
Call it economists’ humor.