Investors' obsession with the interest rates is misguided, and they should be focused on more important economic issues, Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said Monday.
Much like his predecessor, Narayana Kocherlakota, Kashkari indicated he is in favor of interest rates remaining low for now, since inflation is not rising and low rates may help bring more workers back into the labor market.
"Fed watchers might conclude from these remarks that I am a so-called dove. But a year or two from now, if different economic conditions lead me to call for less accommodative policy, they might conclude that I have reversed myself and become a hawk," he said. "The truth is neither."
But Kashkari, who took over the Minneapolis Fed in January, spent the bulk of a speech to the Economic Club of Minnesota focusing on the limitations of monetary policy.
He has so far drawn attention in his tenure because of his initiative to "end too big to fail," an effort aimed at delivering a policy recommendation to Congress by the end of the year for reducing the risks of systemic bank failure and taxpayer bailouts.
Until Monday's speech, Kashkari had been silent on monetary policy. Fed policymakers look to gradually raise interest rates from the historic lows that have prevailed in the years since the financial crisis.
Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are covering the Fed more and Congress less over the past 30 years, Kashkari pointed out Monday. Attention has shifted, he argued, because the Fed has become more transparent and provided more fodder for coverage, and because so little policy work is achieved in Washington.
He likened the interest in the Fed to the "Summer of the Shark" in 2001, when TV news crews showed up at beaches to try to capture shark attacks, even though shark bites were no more frequent that year. The reason? It was a slow news summer.
"From a policy perspective, we are having an extended slow news summer, and market participants are left to focus on where the action is: the FOMC's short-term interest rate decisions," he said.
But the Fed can only do so much, and shaping the trajectory of the economy is not one of those things. That falls to tax, spending and trade policies handled by Congress and the president.
"The truth is that central banks can't influence many of the things that really matter to the long-term well-being of a society," Kashkari said. "We can't influence trend productivity growth. We can't influence competitiveness. We can't influence educational performance."
He allowed that monetary policy plays some role in promoting employment, but said it does not play the most important role. Demographics, technology and labor market policies like income taxes and minimum-wage laws all have greater influence.
And big problems in the economy, such as the persistent gap between black and white people when it comes to employment, cannot be solved by the Fed's decisions on interest rates.
Kashkari said the most notable development in the economy this year is declining productivity. The labor market is improving but output is not growing at a corresponding rate. "It may be a troubling sign for the future of our economy. We don't know," he said. "Understanding what slower productivity growth means for economic growth is essential for policymakers, investors and the public."
The next symposium on ending "too big to fail," which former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is scheduled to attend, will be Monday at the Minneapolis Fed.