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The Economic Obsession with Jackson Hole

Filmmakers have Cannes. Billionaires have Davos. Economists? They have Jackson Hole.

The world’s most exclusive economic get-together takes place this week in the valley at the base of the Teton mountains, in a lodge that is a scenic 34 miles from Jackson, Wyo.

Here, in a western-chic hotel that was donated to the national park that surrounds it by a member of the Rockefeller family, about 120 economists descend late each August to discuss a set of curated papers centered on a policy-relevant theme. Top officials from around the world can often be found gazing out the lobby’s floor-to-ceiling windows — likely hoping for a moose sighting — or debating the merits of a given inflation model over huckleberry cocktails.

This shindig, while a nerdy one, has become a key focus of Wall Street investors, academics and the press. The conference’s host, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, seems to know a thing or two about the laws of supply and demand: It invites way fewer people than would like to attend, which only serves to bid up its prestige. But even more critically, Jackson Hole tends to generate big news.

The most hotly anticipated event is a speech by the Fed chair that typically takes place on Friday morning and is often used as a chance for the central bank to send a signal about policy. Jerome H. Powell, the current Fed head, has made headlines with each and every one of his Jackson Hole speeches, which has investors waiting anxiously for this year’s. It is the only part of the closed-door conference that is broadcast to the public.

Mr. Powell will be speaking at a moment when the Fed’s next moves are uncertain as inflation moderates but the economy retains a surprising amount of momentum. Wall Street is trying to figure out whether Fed officials think that they need to raise interest rates more this year, and if so, whether that move is likely to come in September. So far, policymakers have given little clear signal about their plans. They have lifted interest rates to 5.25 to 5.5 percent from near zero in March 2022, and have left their options open to do more.

People will pay close attention to Mr. Powell’s speech, but “I think it’s about the tone,” said Seth Carpenter, a former Fed economist who is now at Morgan Stanley. “What I don’t think he wants to do is signal or commit to any near-term policy moves.”

For all of its modern renown, the Jackson Hole conference, set for Thursday night to Saturday, has not always been the talk of the town in Washington and New York. Here’s how it became what it is today.

Jackson used to play host to a very different cast of characters: The town was once so remote that it was a go-to hideaway for outlaws.

In 1920, when Jackson’s population was about 300, The New York Times harked back to a not-so-distant era when “whenever a serious crime was committed between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Coast, it was pretty safe to guess that the man responsible for it was either headed for Jackson’s Hole or already had reached it.”

Jackson’s seclusion also meant that the area’s towering, craggy mountains and rolling valley remained pristine, making it prime territory for conservationists. The financier and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. stealthily acquired and then donated much of the land that would eventually become the Jackson Hole section of Grand Teton National Park. And around 1950, he began to construct the Jackson Lake Lodge.

The lodge’s modern architecture was not initially beloved by the locals. (“‘A slab-sided, concrete abomination’ is one of the milder epithets tossed at the massive structure,” The Times quipped in 1955.) Among other complaints, Rockefeller’s donation to the park lacked resort perks: no golf course, no spa.

But by 1982, its ample space and sweeping vistas had caught the eye of the Kansas City Fed, which was looking for a new location for a conference it had begun to hold in 1978.

High on its list of charms, the Jackson Lake Lodge was close to excellent fly fishing — a surefire way to appeal to the Fed chair at the time, Paul A. Volcker. He came, and between the A-list attendees and the location’s natural beauty, Jackson Hole quickly became the Fed event of the year.

“About one-half of the 137 people invited this year attended, a remarkably high response,” The Times reported in 1985.

The size of the conference has not changed much since: It averages about 115 to 120 attendees per year, according to the Kansas City Fed. The response rate has gone up markedly since 1985, though the Fed branch declined to specify how much.

But the local context has shifted.

Teton County, home to Jackson (now a bustling town of 11,000) and Jackson Hole, hosts more millionaires than criminal cowboys these days. It has become the most unequal place in America by several measures, with gaping wealth and income divides. The event, billed as rustic, now struggles to pretend that its backdrop isn’t posh.

And the Fed gathering itself has gained more and more cachet. Alan Greenspan delivered the opening speech at the conference in Jackson Hole in 1991, when he was Fed chair, and then kept up that tradition for 14 summers until he stepped down.

His successors have mostly followed suit. Mr. Powell has used his speeches to caution against overreliance on hard-to-determine economic variables, to unveil an entirely new framework for monetary policy and to pledge that the Fed would do what it took to wrangle rapid inflation.

Attention to Jackson Hole also deepened because of the 2008 global financial crisis, when central banks rescued markets and propped up economies in ways that expanded their influence. In the years that followed, uninvited journalists, Wall Street analysts and protest groups began to camp out in the lodge’s lobby during proceedings. Speaking at or presiding over a Jackson Hole session increasingly marked an economist as an academic rock star.

Esther George, president of the Kansas City Fed between 2011 and early 2023, was in charge as the event garnered more notice. She and her team responded to the intensified spotlight partly by shaking up who got to bask in it.

Far fewer banking and finance industry economists have gotten invites to the event since 2014, partly in response to public attention to the Fed’s Wall Street connections after the financial crisis. The people who make the list tend to be current and former top economic officials and up-and-coming academics. Increasingly, they are women, people from racially diverse backgrounds and people with varying economic viewpoints.

Ms. George started to hold an informal happy hour for female economists in 2012, when there were so few women that “we could all sit around a small table,” she recalled. It made her think: “Why aren’t these other voices here?”

Last year, the happy hour included dozens of women.

But the Jackson Hole conference could be entering a new era. Ms. George had to retire in 2023 per Fed rules, so while she helped to plan this conference, she’ll be passing the baton for future events to her successor, Jeffrey Schmid, a university administrator and former chief executive of Mutual of Omaha Bank. He started as Kansas City Fed president on Monday and will make his debut as a Fed official at the gathering this week.

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