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People are gathering for the Fed's annual meeting in Jackson Hole


The Federal Reserve's annual meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyo., opens tonight. The markets will be closely watching and listening for Fed chair Jerome Powell's speech tomorrow as the central bank continues to wage its battle against inflation. For more on why there is so much attention on Powell's address, we turn now to David Wessel. He's the director of the Hutchins Center at the Brookings Institution and a frequent guest on this program. So, David, what might be on Jay Powell's mind these days?

DAVID WESSEL: Well, inflation, for sure. Inflation's running at a 40-year high. The Fed has been raising interest rates and almost certainly will do so again when it meets in September. But until very recently, financial markets have been betting that the Fed has successfully slowed the U.S. economy and is essentially winning the war against inflation. In fact, there's even speculation that it may cut interest rates next year. But Jay Powell and his colleagues have been pushing back on that, saying their top priority is making sure that inflation moves down towards their 2% target. And he knows that markets and analysts, as you said, will be weighing every word carefully.

Ben Bernanke, the former Fed chair, once said, half-joking, that monetary policy is 98% talk and 2% action because markets move when they - on what they expect the Fed to do. So Powell is likely trying to convince markets that interest rates are going up. They're going to stay up for a while, until the Fed wrings inflation out of the economy, even if that risks a recession in 2023 or 2024.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, I imagine the financial markets will be paying attention, so will big-time stock traders, small-time stock traders. I hear my brother ask me all the time, do you know anything? For the millionth time, no, I don't. They all care about this.

WESSEL: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: They all do. What difference does it make to him or to ordinary old me?

WESSEL: Well, look; monetary policy works through financial markets. When the Fed moves its target for short-term interest rates, that ripples through the financial system. It raises the interest rates that people like you get on your savings, if you have any, and the rates they pay on credit cards, car loans and mortgages. Mortgages move up and down with the bond market, which moves up and down as expectations about what the Fed's going to do change. So like at the end of 2021, you could get a 30-year fixed rate mortgage at around 3%. Today it's over 5%, and that is directly related to what the Fed is doing.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, David, here's the question some might dread. How much higher do you expect the Fed to take interest rates?

WESSEL: Well, it's important to remember that the Fed started from zero. It cut interest rates to zero during the pandemic. It's raised interest rates by about 2 1/4 percentage points so far this year. And both Fed officials and financial markets now expect rates to go up by at least another full percentage point by the end of this year and maybe even more. Now, it's interesting. There's a lot less consensus about what happens after that, and that depends a lot on what happens with inflation, whether it abates, as the Fed hopes, or whether it proves persistent.

MARTÍNEZ: Is there more likely to come out of Jackson Hole than just the Powell speech?

WESSEL: Well, Powell will speak tomorrow morning, and the Fed chair's speech is always the main event. Interestingly, last year when Jay Powell spoke, the conference was virtual because of COVID. He was talking about why he didn't expect inflation to be a problem. So that won't be his theme this year. There are also some serious academic papers, and they often turn out to be really important in identifying significant issues that aren't getting a lot of attention, while everybody speculates on what the Fed's next move going to be.

This year, they're talking a lot about how the COVID pandemic may have affected the economy, whether the pandemic is having lasting effects on productivity, why people aren't coming back to work. And there's also one on the challenges that the Fed faces in shrinking the enormous portfolio of bonds that it bought during the pandemic. But look; there's a lot of reporters at the conference and officials at the Fed from foreign central bankers, so there's likely to be stories to capture the very latest thinking about the challenges the world economy faces.

MARTÍNEZ: David, Jackson Hole, Wyo. - I've heard celebrities go there a lot. It's very beautiful. It's right by the Grand Tetons National Park. It's very far, though, from the Fed's headquarters in Washington and also from Wall Street. So how did Jackson Hole become such a big player in global central banking?

WESSEL: That's a good question. So the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, the host, organized the first conference in Jackson Hole in 1982, and every Fed chair has spoken from that podium since Alan Greenspan in 1989. His successors used the occasion to make big speeches - Bernanke on quantitative easing, Powell unveiled a new framework on monetary policy there. So it always gets attention. And it's such a beautiful place that it draws a good crowd of prominent officials and prominent academic economists, and that makes for very lively and interesting conversations at the dinner table or on the hiking trails, beyond the formal program.

MARTÍNEZ: Unfortunately, with inflation, I can't afford to buy a ticket to Jackson Hole. David Wessel, director of the Hutchins Center at the Brookings Institution. Thanks a lot, David.

WESSEL: They wouldn't sell you one anyways. You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.