Jerome Powell spoke on a virtual IMF panel Thursday.
Nobody was expecting to hear anything new from the vaunted Fed Chair, who’s mastered the art (?) of repeating himself, almost verbatim, to the point that you could easily mistake one set of remarks for a different set, precisely because there’s no discernible difference between them.
I’m not trying to be derisive. What else is he supposed to say? The recovery is incomplete, the Fed will remain accommodative until it judges that accommodation is no longer needed and hyperinflation isn’t likely.
Powell lives in a macabre version of the film Groundhog Day. Every morning, he wakes up to the same newscast (“Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don’t forget your masks ’cause it’s daaaangerous out there today. It’s dangerous out there every day. What is this, 2017? Not hardly”) and has the same conversations with the same people (“Jay? Jay Powell? Jay Powell, I thought that was you. Now don’t you tell me you don’t remember me ’cause I sure as heckfire remember you”).
Little wonder he dodged questions Thursday about whether he’d serve a second term. The last three years must seem like an eternity. First it was a trade war and daily, public shaming by the President of The United States, then it was a once-in-a-generation economic collapse brought about by an actual plague. Powell was 64 when he decided to accept the top job at the Fed. Four years later, he’s 97.
In his Thursday remarks, Powell tried out an anecdote (bless his heart), and I’m not sure it went well.
“Finally, Chair Powell, nightmares — what keeps you up at night,” CNBC’s Sara Eisen wondered. “Uhhm — ,” Powell stammered. “I would mention the nine or ten million of those people who are trying to get back to the lives that they had,” he said, before going off script.
“You may know this, there’s a pretty substantial tent city that I drive [through] on the way home from work on Virginia Avenue,” he remarked. The verbal emphasis Powell put on “tent city” somehow made the story even more tragically comedic than it would have been on its own.
“So, we just need to keep reminding ourselves that even though some parts of the economy are doing just great, there’s a very large group of people who are not,” he went on to emphasize.
To be sure, Powell meant well. And, if you watch the entire clip (not shown), he clarified, noting that it’s a mistake to focus narrowly on near-term, “palliative” measures, while not affording enough attention to the longer-term structural issues.
But, as you can imagine, he was lampooned on social media. In this case, simply quoting him was enough to elicit jeers and digital expressions of incredulous laughter.
For example, one netizen quoted Powell and put the date next to it, so as to show how ridiculous it might look were it featured on, say, a tear-off calendar:
There is a pretty significant tent city that I drive through on the way home from work” – Jerome Powell 4/8/21
Others strung together all-caps newswire snippets, which made for even more unfortunate optics:
FED’S POWELL: 10 MLN TRYING TO GET BACK TO WORK; DRIVE PAST ‘PRETTY SUBSTANTIAL TENT CITY’ OF HOMELESS ON WAY HOME
And so on, and so forth.
This is why it’s generally better if Powell sticks assiduously to the script. There’s nothing “wrong” with his standard, boilerplate talking points, maddeningly bland though they may be.
His intentions were good Thursday, but to those inclined to sarcastic derision, Powell inadvertently conjured an indelible visual: A Fed Chair worth tens of millions gawking at a makeshift, outdoor homeless shelter through the glass of a luxury sedan on his way home to a safe, secure and, one imagines, nicely-adorned residence.