JACKSON HOLE, WY – A top Federal Reserve official pushed back on fears of a double-dip recession, predicting "slow, steady growth" in the U.S. economy despite some recent weak indicators.
"No one knows for sure anything, but the fact of the matter is at least some of us have said -- I've said -- that we would have a slow but consistent growth in our economy," said Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, in an interview with FOX Business. "People talk about two to three percent -- that is not out of the realm of reasonable."
Hoenig and his bank sponsor the annual central bankers conference in Jackson Hole, Wy., which opens tonight and continues through Saturday. More than 100 Fed officials, central bankers from other nations, academic experts, economists and others are meeting here amid slowing growth in the U.S. and European economies; rocky bailouts of highly-indebted European countries, and extreme volatility in financial markets.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke gives the symposium's keynote address Friday morning. U.S. equities have been rising in anticipation that Bernanke will announce new measures to stimulate the domestic economy, which he, too, is expected to say will continue growing, though perhaps more slowly than the Fed projected as recently as June.
Two weeks ago, the Fed's policy-setting body said that to help juice growth and job creation, it is prepared to keep short-term interest rates at near zero through mid-2013. Analysts believe that on Friday Bernanke will explain that announcement in more detail and at least open the door to Fed consideration of more stimulus moves, including additional purchases of government securities to help keep longer-term interest rates low -- so-called "quantitative easing."
The symposium, the 35th sponsored by the Kansas City Fed, is Hoenig's last as the host and organizer. A Fed employee for 38 years, Hoenig, an economist, steps down from the bank in September under the Fed's policy of mandatory retirement at age 65.
Among his parting thoughts at this year's conference:
-- despite the Fed's moves to address the challenges in financial markets and to accelerate economic growth and job creation, the Fed's top priority, Hoenig said, is keeping inflation under control, a policy he said the conference has helped to solidify over the years. "People know if we lose that credibility around price stability, it will be very hard to regain," said Hoenig, a prominent inflation hawk. "That is the most important."
-- after two decades of debt accumulation, he said, debt reduction by consumers and the federal government is a major policy goal now, necessary to help restore optimism, certainty and stability in the economy. "We do have this enormous debt overhang," he said. "We have to change the dynamics. We've saved virtually nothing for years...If we know that and we focus on that, then I think we can change the future in terms of our growth, job creation in this country." He again praised the deficit reduction plan released by President Obama's deficit reduction commission, the Simpson-Bowles plan, which would reduce deficits by $4 trillion over a decade with $3 of spending cuts for each dollar of new tax revenue.
-- he discounted the weakness in recent economic indicators at several other Fed banks, suggesting the timing of their surveys may have artificially depressed them. The surveys, he said, were conducted in "the most volatile week in the financial markets we've seen in decades -- so I am not surprised necessarily that people's optimism was a little bit strained during that week." His own bank's latest reading of economic activity in the midwest and parts of the west "moderated, but it hasn't tanked," he said. "I think that may be as realistic as any."
-- he repeated his concerns that "zero interest rate" policy by the Fed could harm the economy in part by creating a credit boom that eventually could lead to new bubbles in housing and other sectors, the kind that triggered the recent financial crisis. He is not currently a voting member of the Fed policy body, the Federal Open Market Committee -- bank presidents rotate on and off FOMC annually -- but he suggests he would have voted against the latest FOMC decision August 9 to keep short-term interest rates low for the next two years. "I have eight (dissenting) votes prior to that (over keeping rates low for an extended period), so I think its a fairly safe assumption," he said.
-- he declined to comment on recent moves by European nation's to stabilize and repair the economies of Greece and other countries with high debt. Among the attendees at the conference will be Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of he European Central Bank, and Christine LeGarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Asked if Europe's plans are appropriate and working, Hoenig said, "I hope to find that out over the next couple of days."
Hoenig praised the conference itself as a strong forum for discussion and debate among economic policymakers, an isolated place that offers them an informal setting for dialogue "both in the meetings and outside...that's how consensus is made." Jackson Hole sits within the bank's district borders; the lodge at the nearby national park where the symposium has been held since 1982 does not provide televisions in its guest cabins.
"If you're playing in the halls of Washington or the halls of New York or wherever it is and you're in conflict, you can't have that kind those kinds of conversations, you can't make that kind of difference," Hoenig said.
Hoeing declined to discuss what Bernanke might say on Friday.