By Sarah Foster
This is the final installment of a multi-part series on the Federal Reserve System Beige Book. Read the previous article: “Despite falling under regional banks’ purview, Fed’s Beige Book excludes territories, commonwealths”
Four years ago, Bethany Sanchez received a surprising inquiry: A request from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago to participate in the Beige Book survey.
It wasn’t as if Sanchez was new to the Federal Reserve System, whose policymaking arm determines the direction of interest rates. The fair lending director of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council had previously met with former Fed chairmen Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke through her involvement with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, an organization that promotes access to banking and financial services among underrepresented groups. She knew, however, that the report primarily surveyed executives at companies, not directors of nonprofits.
“Most of my colleagues had no idea what the Beige Book was,” she said. “Some of them are tuned into economics, but many aren’t.”
Unfamiliarity with the Fed, much less the Beige Book, is not uncommon. A 2017 survey of more than 430 individuals by personal finance website WalletHub found that 44 percent of respondents didn’t know the last time the Fed raised rates. Nearly a third thought rate hikes were bad for the economy, and 14 percent thought the Fed should be abolished altogether.
An understanding the Beige Book doesn’t fare any better, if an unscientific poll of people on Michigan Avenue on an August day is any indication. Many hadn’t even heard of the qualitative Fed research report published eight times a year that reflects economic conditions by industry across each of the 12 Fed Reserve Bank districts. Yet, experts point out that they are all impacted by the report that reveals helpful insights for the Fed in determining monetary policy.
Sanchez’s participation in the survey started out simply. More than half of the questions, covering topics such as capital improvements or employment, didn’t apply to her work in the nonprofit sector. Her organization had never purchased new properties, and it rarely had positions open for hire. She frequently clicked “non-applicable” for her responses, she said.
A Chicago Reserve Bank economist only followed up with her one time in her four years of taking the survey, when she mentioned local businesses were collaborating with educational institutions to better access qualified job candidates. The economist wanted to know if Sanchez knew of any specific programs in Wisconsin doing this.
Sanchez’s participation has evolved into an eagerness to include the perspectives of groups who may be underrepresented in her survey responses, particularly people of color or individuals with lower- to moderate-level incomes. Before filling out each survey, Sanchez will often ask her colleagues if they’ve seen any outliers or trends worth mentioning.
Last year, Sanchez also joined the Fed’s Community Advisory Council, whose members meet with the Fed’s board of governors twice a year to discuss economic conditions in communities with minority populations.
Sanchez’s priority of giving a voice to more individuals comes at a time when the Chicago Fed is working to diversify its Beige Book coverage area and source list. Soon, the bank will include cities in Iowa and Wisconsin for its roundtable discussions, one of the ways that Chicago Fed economists gather information for the report, said Thomas Walstrum, an economist at the bank who prepares the document.
The Beige Book directly impacts individuals because it shows them they have a voice, said Ken Kuttner, who previously held positons at both the New York Fed and the Chicago Fed. Although its officials aren’t voted into office and its policies aren’t approved by any legislatures, the Fed still makes an effort to speak to members of the community when crafting its policies, he said.
The Beige Book also helps individuals understand the conditions of their local economies in a logical, straightforward manner, said Art Rolnick, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota who previously oversaw the Beige Book research process at the Minneapolis Fed. For businesses executives wanting to learn about current concerns in their districts or trends for investment decisions, it can be a powerful tool, he said.
Most of the Beige Book’s impact stems from the Fed’s main goal: conducting monetary policy. The report is just one form of research utilized by the Federal Open Market Committee, the arm of the Fed that determines this policy.
“It’s a dot in the overall picture,” said Larry Christiano, chair of the department of economics at Northwestern University who specializes in monetary policy. “You can ask individuals what they’re doing and what their friends are doing, but they won’t have any insight to the big picture.”
If there’s a lot of uncertainty in the economy, the Beige Book becomes more impactful on monetary policy, said Bill English, a finance professor at Yale University who previously worked for the Fed. On the cusp of the financial crisis, for example, the Beige Book had a heavy influence, he said, adding that the anecdotal information revealed concerns that were not yet expressed in data.
After the FOMC reads through the Beige Book and hears from the Reserve Bank presidents and the Fed chairman, it arrives at a conclusion about the economy’s performance and decides whether to raise, lower or maintain interest rates. Regardless of the decision, everyone is impacted.
“It affects the exchange rate, imported goods, the car interest rate, the mortgage rate, your credit card rate,” said Mark Witte, economics professor at Northwestern University who spent two years as a consultant to the Fed. “As that rate goes up, all other rates go up.”
The Fed may be more inclined now to visit Milwaukee or other parts of Wisconsin because of the issues she has raised, Sanchez said. She isn’t sure if any concrete changes have come out of her involvement with the Beige Book survey, but she is certain that she’s been able to help the Chicago Fed hear more perspectives, she said.
“They know their community, and they know the needs of their community,” Sanchez said. “They get to have more of a voice than they otherwise would have.”