Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke comes to Minnesota on Thursday with the U.S. economy teetering on the brink of another recession and investors and policymakers around the world hanging on his every word.
Score one for the Economic Club of Minnesota, the relatively unknown organization that managed to land the world's most powerful central banker as the guest speaker for its September luncheon.
The commitment to show up in Minnesota in September came almost a year ago, when most people thought the economy was getting stronger. Even so, the three-year-old Economic Club knew there'd be high interest in Bernanke's appearance.
With the economy having weakened noticeably in recent months, the pressure on Bernanke, President Obama and Congress to do something has intensified. Coincidentally enough, Bernanke's speech will be followed hours later by President Obama's televised address to Congress, which will focus on jobs.
The two speeches will be a study in contrasts.
Obama will propose much that is likely to get bogged down in politics and accomplish little.
Bernanke, meanwhile, will leave us guessing. Will the Fed resume its purchases of short-term Treasuries, an action credited with boosting the stock market and the fortunes of U.S. exporters? Or will it swap some of the short-term notes on its books for longer-term ones, thus bringing down the cost of borrowing for businesses and consumers alike? Or does Friday's dismal jobs report require the Fed to take even more aggressive actions?
Additionally, Bernanke has his own politics to worry about. The minutes (www.startribune.com/a645) of the August meeting of the Federal Open Markets Committee revealed deep divisions about what, if anything, Fed policymakers should do in response to surprisingly tepid economic data. Ultimately, three Federal Reserve Bank presidents disagreed with the committee's decision to keep interest rates near zero until the middle of 2013. One of those dissenters was Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
Given this economic and political backdrop, Bernanke's Thursday speech will be broadcast live, and the Economic Club of Minnesota found itself scrambling last week to accommodate an unprecedented volume of requests for media credentials.
How did this good fortune come the club's way?
"We've had a standing invitation for Chairman Bernanke," said Mark Kennedy, a director of the Economic Club and one of its three founders. "We've also been fortunate enough to have three Federal Reserve Bank presidents speak at our meetings, and we were able to work through them to make this happen."
The Economic Club is a bit of a misnomer, in that it wasn't founded by economists and counts none as a director. In addition to Kennedy, two directors -- Tim Penny and Bill Frenzel -- used to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. The remaining six are active or former corporate executives, including retired General Mills CEO Steve Sanger.
The Economic Club is nonpartisan and a nonprofit. Its total revenue in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, was $160,332. In addition to corporate sponsorships, the club's members pay annual dues of up to $1,000 a year. Most of them are drawn from the executive ranks of Minnesota companies.
Most of the club's events are open to nonmembers, although the Bernanke lunch is an exception.
Kennedy said the club's goal is to raise the level of dialogue about economic issues by bringing nationally known speakers to Minnesota. "We're not the speaking venue for everyone," he said. "We're trying to get the very best speakers."
Anyone who's watched Bernanke before Congress probably wouldn't rate him as the most captivating public speaker.
But at this moment in time, it's hard to imagine a more important one.
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